Closing the Circle

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We may be approaching one of the most significant events of our time: the end of the Castro regime in Cuba. So long have Fidel Castro and his friends reigned in Cuba that it is hard to get perspective on the regime and its history. The history of Cuba itself remains little known to Norteamericanos.

Fortunately, there is Robert Miller. A longtime contributor to Liberty, Robert was reared in Cuba as a member of a prominent family. He has spent most of his life in the United States but has followed events in his homeland closely. When Liberty discovered that Robert was writing a memoir of his family’s life in Cuba, their flight to the United States, and their subsequent adventures, we asked him if we could publish parts of his work. Robert agreed. We are featuring it in several segments, of which this is the third. The first was published in Liberty on February 5, the second on April 9.

The memoir is not a work of political science; it is something much more: an introduction to ways of life, parallel to those of North Americans, and connected at many points, but always pungently different. We think our readers will find this view of Cuba, before and after the Castro Revolution, strange, unpredictable, charming, funny, tragic, and always very interesting.

Part III begins one of the most exciting and politically interesting stories in the Memoir: the failed 1961 attempt by the United States government and Cuban exiles to remove the Castro regime, now known as the Bay of Pigs. If you’re like me, this account of the true inwardness of the affair will show you things about history, and human nature, that you never understood before. — Stephen Cox

Part III
Into the Maelstrom

My mother’s cousin — and best friend — Tita, is still a contender for outliving Fidel. Both shared the dream of witnessing Castro’s demise — a tiny but immensely satisfying symbolic victory for two old women over the 20th-century’s deadliest ideology. A flirtatious ball of energy and Bette Midler lookalike, she can reduce you to stomach-cramping laughter within minutes of meeting her. Everyone is her instant friend. Though three years older than Castro, she can still run circles around his hospital bed — even in her wheelchair. For Tita, outliving Castro is an intensely personal goal.

Tita’s paternal side of the family hailed from Camagüey, where her father had managed a sugar cane refinery for an American company. A deeply patriotic Cuban, he lied about his daughter’s birthday: Tita was born on January 24, but her birth certificate is dated January 28, the birthday of Jose Marti, Cuba’s greatest independence hero. Her great-grandfather emigrated from Catalunya in Spain — exactly when and why are memories that remain unreachable.

She and her brother Alfredo attended the University of Havana with Fidel in the late 1940s. Alfredo studied law with Fidel. While Alfredo joined the basketball team and later represented Cuba — twice — in the Olympics, Fidel chose a more dangerous sport. Both remember him as a pistol-wielding political gangster-type (a common phenomenon of the times) with an emphasis on action rather than ideology. What little there was of the latter came from Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Spanish Falangism with a dollop of Benito Mussolini thrown in for broader appeal. While Tita got her doctorate in Filosofia y Letras (roughly, philosophy and liberal arts), Alfredo and Castro became lawyers.

For Tita, outliving Castro is an intensely personal goal. Though three years older than Fidel, she can still run circles around his hospital bed — even in her wheelchair.

In Cuba everyone is connected by only four degrees of separation. While he was at the University, Castro married into the Batista political family and, unknowingly, into what would later become the George W. Bush administration. Mirta Diaz Balart, Castro’s first wife, was the daughter of Rafael Diaz Balart, a prominent Batista cabinet minister, and the sister of Rafael Diaz Balart (junior), another cabinet minister in the Batista administration. It was Castro’s in-laws who saved his butt after the abortive Moncada Army Barracks attack, pleading for his young life. The latter Rafael Diaz Balart was the father of Lincoln and Mario Diaz Balart, at one time long-serving Florida Republican Representatives for the 21st and 25th congressional districts, respectively. But that was way in the future.

Tita’s uncle, Mariano, also worked in the Batista administration. A law enforcement professional — and a martinet of the first degree — he was in charge of the important-sounding Foreign Counter-Espionage Activities Department. Not that Cuba had any foreign enemies. Having been a loyal albeit minor member of the Allied contingent in WWII, Cuba became a dutiful cold warrior in the 1950s, refusing diplomatic relations with the USSR and establishing the Departamento de Actividades Enemigas to exercise solidarity with the free world. Mariano was a conscientious bureaucrat but, like the Maytag repairman, had little to do.

When Castro triumphed, Mariano, reading the writing on the wall, hitchhiked out of Cuba on the plane that flew Batista into exile. His secretary, a man by the name of Castaño and a strictly career civil servant, wasn’t so lucky. Castaño landed in La Caba>ña, the jail adjacent to Morro Castle. Pulling every long distance string available, Mariano got the US ambassador to intervene. The ambassador personally extracted a promise from Ernesto “Che” Guevara to release the hapless secretary for immediate flight out of the country. When, the following morning, the ambassador showed up to take charge of his charge — in a scene straight out of Andy Garcia’s Lost City — Guevara declared that an enemy of the people had been liquidated. According to Tita, Guevara bragged that he himself had pulled the trigger.

* * *

Tita married Armando, a larger-than-life character, in 1943, and had two kids, Armandito and Alina. After only a decade of marriage, Armando died of a heart attack, leaving everyone disconsolate — especially 10-year-old Armandito. Tita’s family lived next to the Aisa family compound near the center of Havana in Santos Suarez. Little “Chuchu” Aisa, was two years younger than Armandito, but seven years older than Alina. Chuchu was their best friend and confidante. Alina was later to marry Chuchu. Armandito made Chuchu his co-conspirator, concocting daring escapades no adult countenanced.

Armandito was impetuous, curious, and singleminded to a fault; he was impervious to adult admonitions. He was a boy with no boundaries. It wasn’t that he couldn’t “color within the lines”; he contemptuously ignored the lines as arbitrary nuisances. He wasn’t disobedient or rebellious for the sake of being so; rather, he needed to find things out for himself. When, as a little child, Tita told him that Habanero chilies were dangerous, he looked her straight in the eyes and proceeded to investigate them for himself, suffering a burning tongue and a torrent of tears in payment. A troublesome student who incurred a stint in military school, he nonetheless became a voracious reader, absorbing as much as possible on his own.

While he was at the University, Castro married into the Batista political family and, unknowingly, into what would later become the George W. Bush administration.

Tita, an auburn redhead, had a dark-haired, near-twin younger sister, Cuca, with whom she was very close. Cuca was small and, on first impression, not one to make waves. But behind Cuca’s impassive smile hid a steely determination and a gyroscopic character that kept her family on a steady course through the storms of revolution, prison, and death that lay waiting in ambush.

Cuca married Pillo, a serious and quiet man of boundless tolerance, with a silly and whimsical sense of humor. He was not a typical Cuban. Pillo thought religion was a scam. He didn’t dance, drink, gamble, or womanize; he hated motorboats and loved salads — a dish as rare as peanut butter in 1950s Cuba. His in-laws thought he was a Martian. Pillo’s command of English was excellent, but his precise pronunciation, as if it were Spanish, was laughably incomprehensible to the untrained ear. When I heard him say “beaRd,” with an exaggerated rolling R for the English word “bird,” I had to ask him what it meant. Like my own dad, Pillo became an accountant with a creative streak: he managed the Central Toledo, Cuba’s largest sugar refinery, and later the Topper factory, where Tappan ranges and ovens were manufactured.

Pillo and Cuca sired two kids, MariCris and Pedrito, both of whom recognized few constraints and were little rascals no one would ever describe as team players. They lived in the Reparto Nautico (Nautico Neighborhood) of Marianao, a swank Havana area right on the waterfront, where Batista owned property. Close by lived the prominent Leon family, whose patriarch had been mayor of Marianao. It was a close-knit community. The Leons’ son, Cachorro (“cub,” hence “lion cub,” but with overtones of “spiteful pistol”) became close to Armandito, who was his same age, albeit considerably smaller. They went to the same parties and hung out with the same group of girls.

Cachorro wasn’t the loose cannon that Armandito was becoming; and, unlike MariCris and Pedrito, who saw a world without rules or fences, Cachorro approached life more cautiously, with the thoughtfulness of a novice chess player. His comparative reticence was the ideal complement for Armandito’s and MariCris’ lack of inhibitions, and they soon formed bonds that only death would sever. A young Tony Curtis lookalike, Cachorro took a shine to little MariCris, an irresistible copper-toned princess (and closer cousin to me than was appropriate), initiating a very long and tempestuous relationship. Cachorro and MariCris were later to marry, an ill-conceived venture that would last only ten months — plus another couple of years in limbo because of his obstinacy about signing the divorce papers.

Once, in a fit of frustration and anger at his car’s refusal to start, retrieved his pistol, opened the hood, and with legs apart — like a firing squad — emptied his chamber at the recalcitrant V-8 motor.

After their travails following the Revolution, Cuca, Pillo, MariCris, and Pedrito emigrated to Guatemala, where Pillo revived Tappan’s dilapidated, shuttered, and leaking facility in Amatitlan. He turned a place full of rusted and dismantled machines into a working, productive enterprise with nothing but his resourcefulness and a laughable budget. After Pillo’s death, Tita and Cuca became inseparable. While Tita was all hustle and bustle — a redheaded tornado, cooking, entertaining, and raconteuring — Cuca made sure that food got stirred, the table got set, and Tita didn’t exaggerate too much. Many years later, when they were living together in Miami’s Little Havana, Tita liked to recount their doctor’s nickname for them: “Teta y Caca” — tit and shit — and when she did, she beamed with glee at his over-the-line naughtiness and her own lack of inhibition. Cuca quietly went along, wanly smiling — it was an anecdote she’d never recount, a nickname she’d never accept, but a situation she gladly accepted because Tita infused such delight in the retelling.

* * *

By the end of 1960 my immediate family had left, and our extended family had become a bit more caught up in events inside Cuba. Cousin Eddy, an old-line Commie, stayed, as did Tita’s and Cuca’s families, hoping for better times — a prospect that 15-year-old Armandito didn’t see. With his great-uncle Mariano’s exit, the execution of Casta>ño (Mariano’s secretary) and of hundreds of others who had also been peremptorily liquidated, the violation of his friends’ and family’s property rights, the increasing radicalization of the regime, and his strong Catholic faith, Armandito was nearing critical mass.

Cuba was falling apart, morally and politically, and he had to do something about it. Armandito had become a gasoline-drenched tinder pile awaiting a spark. He was a hotheaded, idealistic naïf, and it didn’t help that he lacked a father to temper his macho teenage excesses or turn thoughtful reflection into effective action. Not that his father Armando was a paragon of restraint. Armando père had once, in a fit of frustration and anger at his car’s refusal to start, retrieved his pistol, opened the hood, and with legs apart — like a firing squad — emptied his chamber at the recalcitrant V-8 motor.

Sometime in late 1959, while Armandito was attending Catholic services at the Jesus de Miramar church, a group of newly installed Castro policemen approached the church. Feeling their oats, testing their newfound anti-clerical indoctrination-turned-idealism — and perhaps following orders — they entered the church and disrupted the service with ridicule. The congregants resisted, with Armandito, a very strong and large 15-year-old, in the vanguard. A fight involving over 200 participants broke out. Armandito’s tinder was lit and, Armandito being Armandito, his bonfire was soon out of control.

He developed pretensions of joining the counter-revolutionary movements already inchoate in the Escambray Mountains, but in fact he used his wits and guile right at home in Havana. Counter-revolutionaries had been landing armaments on isolated beaches outside the city. Armandito volunteered to locate the caches and transfer them to secure locations. For a 15-year-old kid this was heady stuff, and very dangerous. But he wasn’t alone. Cachorro, although a month older, followed his lead. Both were inspired by Bebo, Cachorro’s uncle, who had been a professional revolutionary since both boys could remember; first against Batista and then, since January 4, 1959, only four days after Castro’s triumph, against him.

To save him from himself, Tita shipped him off to the US, while she remained to care for her mother who was too sick to travel; as did her sister Cuca whose husband Pillo still held hope that things might not turn out to be as bad as they seemed.

Unbeknownst to Tita, Armandito was already deeper in the resistance than she realized. The boy didn’t want to leave Cuba. Once in Miami, he tried to join the resistance-in-exile but was rebuffed because of his age. In New York he worked odd jobs, learned English, acquired a Social Security number, and networked with whatever counter-revolutionaries he met.

* * *

And there were plenty. One old saw states that wherever there are two Cubans, there are four political factions. In The Brilliant Disaster, Jim Rasenberger reports that there were 184 different anti-Castro groups in the US in 1960. By 1961, Jay Gleichauf, the CIA’s intelligence man in Miami, reported almost 700 counter-revolutionary groups in Miami alone. They filled a spectrum from old-line Batista supporters to Constitution of 1940 advocates to disillusioned Castro revolutionaries to Escambray revolutionaries sidelined by Castro to free-market liberals to Christian Democrats to democratic socialists, with every finely parsed philosophical and political distinction one could imagine slicing and dicing into ever finer subsets of conviction.

Armandito volunteered to locate the weapons caches and transfer them to secure locations. For a 15-year-old kid this was heady stuff, and very dangerous.

One of them, the Movimiento de Recuperacion Revolucionaria (Movement to Recover the Revolution), or MRR, grew to become the principal counter-revolutionary movement, with supporting members in Miami, Mexico, Venezuela, and other places. It organized infiltration by guerrilla groups into Cuba, arms drops, communications, sabotage missions, dissident extrications, etc., with assistance from the CIA after 1959.

The irony is that the MRR was created in Cuba, in late 1959, by Dr. Manuel Artime, a professor at the Havana Military Academy and a psychologist and medical doctor. He had volunteered to implement the Castro regime’s Agrarian Reform law for the National Institute of Agrarian Reform (INRA) in Manzanillo, Oriente province. But Artime’s idealism took a dive following the Huber Matos affair on October 19 and the wave of arrests that followed.

What finally turned him 180 degrees against the regime was a secret meeting of the INRA a few days later in which he heard Fidel Castro personally outline a plan to Communize Cuba within three years. Artime’s tentative suspicions were confirmed, and he decided to take action. He resigned his position at the Academy and at the INRA to organize his coworkers into a resistance movement that would ultimately become the MRR. With the help of students and peasants, he marshaled the core of an underground movement in every province, in a scant three weeks.

By late November his life was in danger, so he sought asylum. In December, with the aid of the CIA, he escaped Cuba on a Honduran freighter. Artime would become the political leader of Brigade 2506, the name adopted by the Bay of Pigs resistance fighters.

The idea for the Bay of Pigs was conceived on January 18, 1960 by Jacob Esterline (also called Jake Engler), CIA Caracas Station Chief, and J.C. King, chief of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Division, as a “relaxed guerrilla venture” in case the situation in Cuba worsened and the US government decided to take action. Initial training of 30 Cubans would begin in the Panama Canal Zone.

Four months later, in March of 1960, President Eisenhower made the project official. He ordered the CIA to produce a covert action plan that included the organization of a paramilitary force of Cuban exiles to be used against Castro. The Escambray Mountains already nurtured counter-revolutionary guerrillas, many of whom had been part of Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo’s Directorio Revolucionario, the revolutionary movement — independent of Castro’s M26 group — that Castro had sidelined when he took power. Eisenhower’s paramilitary unit would join forces with the existing guerrillas.

By April the “covert action” was in full swing. The CIA approached a group of prominent Cuban exile leaders — including a former Prime Minister, a former Minister of Foreign Relations, and Manuel Artime, leader of the MRR, the largest resistance group — to offer assistance in organizing military action, letting them know that the US was fully committed to the success of the operation, providing money, training, planning, ships, airplanes, logistics, and arms, but that the operation would be manned strictly by Cubans.

The Cubans thought they’d won the anti-Castro lottery. Still, they were skeptical. And they needed a professional Cuban military leader. Artime suggested “Pepe” San Roman, a 29-year-old graduate of Cuba’s military academy who had also trained at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and Fort Benning, Georgia. San Roman was already planning a campaign against Fidel from Mexico with a group of ten ex-army officers, among them Hugo Sueiro who would become Armandito’s 2nd Battalion commander.

Tall, slender, dark-haired, quiet, and reserved, San Roman had served under Batista, then revolted, was imprisoned, was released, served Castro, was again imprisoned and again released, and finally escaped to the United States. Artime’s men and San Roman’s officers had been enemies in Cuba. They still distrusted one another. After many lengthy meetings and a reconnaissance of the CIA training camp on Useppa Island, a CIA golf course in the Gulf of Mexico off central Florida, San Roman and his officers agreed to join the effort. They could sense the depth of commitment from the personnel they met, and the money that was being spent.

Second off the starting line was David Atlee Phillips, my family’s old Alturas del Vedado tenant, who was put in charge of organizing, equipping, and programming Radio Swan, an anti-Castro radio station transmitting from Swan Island, a tiny islet 90 miles off the coast of Honduras. The CIA station went on-air on May 17.

In the makeshift Guatemalan training camp, rain was constant. Homegrown pot was popular. One man developed a relationship with a mule.

Next up was the recruitment of a nucleus of resistance fighters. There was no shortage of volunteers. Most were students from the Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria, with a few ex-Batista and ex-Castro soldiers thrown in for diversity. These few dozen early recruits began training in late May on the Useppa Island golf course. But that wouldn’t last.

Useppa was US territory, and the training of foreign nationals on US soil for a military action against a foreign power was illegal. So the CIA moved the training to the Panama Canal Zone — in spite of its being legally under US jurisdiction. The recruits trained there for two months. The CIA then approached Guatemala, seeking a training base on foreign soil. The Guatemalans agreed. Construction of a training facility, the 5,000-acre Camp Trax, and an airport at Retalhuleu, both in the western sierra, was well underway by late May. The first 50 trainees, who soon grew to 150, built seat-of-the-pants facilities: a 4-hole privy, 12-man tents, leaky barracks without foundations, and separate quarters for the American trainers. Showers weren’t built until October. It wasn’t until November that the force grew to 300. One single, tattered issue of Playboy constituted the library. Homegrown pot was popular. One man developed a relationship with a mule. Rain was constant.

With the US government now joining and coordinating the struggle against Castro, ensuring that success might be possible, the five major anti-Castro groups in Miami — including the MRR — joined forces in June. The coalition became known as the Frente Nacional Democratico, or simply the Frente.

Restless, frustrated, feeling isolated from the place where the action was happening, and privy to the exile rumor mills, 16-year-old Armandito was soon back in Miami pulling every possible scam to get into the Frente, whose offices now located in a big house at Twenty-seventh Avenue and Tenth Street Southwest.

Cachorro was right there with him. His dad had left Cuba first, in 1960, to test US waters. Mom and sister soon followed. Unlike Armandito, whose revolutionary spark was lit by a rumble in a church, Cachorro’s revolutionary trajectory was evolutionary, a slow and deliberate process inspired by the idealism and example of his uncle Bebo, who was already in Miami, deep in the Frente.

Neither boy, at 16, with their birthdays only one month apart, could join up. The Frente accepted18-year-olds and older — 17 with parental permission. In September 1960 Cachorro turned 17, followed by Armandito in October. Immediately, Cachorro asked his dad for permission. “No way,” his father answered. “If you died or came back maimed, your mother and I would never be able to live with ourselves and would regret the decision for the rest of our lives.”

Unable to get parental permission, they turned to Uncle Bebo, who immediately forged “parental” permission for both. Subjected to a thorough interview followed by a lie-detector test, the boys — the third and fourth youngest combatants in the entire Bay of Pigs effort — were in.

Chuchu, Armandito’s other childhood co-conspirator and future brother-in-law, didn’t stand a chance of joining: at 14, he was just too young. His contribution to the anti-Castro cause would come later, after the Bay of Pigs prisoners had been repatriated.

* * *

In December 1960, my cousins Cachorro and Armandito landed at the CIA airstrip at Retalhuleu, deep in the western sierras of Guatemala, after a six-hour flight with a secret destination. At least they could smoke.

The boys were part of a 430-man cohort of Cuban exiles headed for boot camp to train for an invasion of Cuba. Most were students from the Agrupacion Catolica Universitaria (Catholic University Group), or ex-Cuban military.

At the Retalhuleu airstrip, little was disclosed. A select few were given the opportunity to volunteer for paratrooper training. Cachorro signed up. The remaining cadets were convoyed to distant Base Trax for infantry and artillery training. For some reason that Cachorro can’t recall, Armandito didn’t join the paratroops; he and Armandito — against their instincts — found themselves separated.

The Guatemala training bases were scattered along the length of the Pacific coast Sierra Madre Mountains, with the Retalhuleu Air Base more or less centrally located among the other bases at an altitude of 650 feet. Guatemala was well disposed to help the operation, even volunteering its military personnel for security. It helped that the 1954 US-aided coup against authoritarian President Jacobo Arbenz had been spectacularly successful. Retalhuleu was the central access point for the other bases and the main Guatemalan entry and exit point for the CIA operation. It is where the Brigade’s Cuban pilots underwent flight training from Alabama Air National Guard volunteers.

The trainees crawled on elbows and knees with rifles (or much heavier machine guns) cradled on biceps, under live rounds fired three feet above ground, toward the bullets.

Only a few miles away, under the shadow of Santiaguito volcano, but 7,000 feet — and 3 to 4 hours — up in the mountains, camp Base Trax became the main infantry and artillery training center. Close by, the paratroopers trained at Halcon Base. Farther south, almost at sea level, camp Garrapatenango (literally, tick-town), was also used for paratrooper training. Flights left from nearby San Jose airport on the coast, a location that would also be used for amphibious landing and joint operations training.

Apprehensive and lonely, Armandito and Cachorro soon found older classmates and acquaintances from Cuba who made the rigors of training by US military personnel on loan to the CIA more bearable. Armandito hooked up with El Chino, a slightly older boy he’d known since he was 14. They were fortunate. Having endured nearly four months of hardships, and being young and athletic, they were better prepared for the upcoming operation than most of the other volunteers.

Armandito ended up in the 2nd Infantry Battalion (numbering 183 men under the command of Hugo Sueiro Rios), Company E (led by Oscar Luis Acevedo), 6th squad. Each recruit was assigned a number beginning with 2500 to make the force seem larger than it really was. The Cubans honored soldier number 2506, who fell to his death in a mountain training accident, by using his number to name the brigade: Brigade 2506. Armandito’s number was 3386.

Cachorro was assigned to what Eli Cesar, author of San Blas: Ultima Batalla en Bahia de Cochinos, called “the most elite unit of Brigade 2506”: the 1st Battalion of paratroopers under the command of Alejandro del Valle, a seasoned jump instructor in the Cuban army. Cachorro was part of Company A, Squad: Escuadra de Armas, a unit composed of nine paratroopers. Three were riflemen, with at least one operating a .30 caliber machine gun and another either a bazooka or a recoilless rifle. As Cachorro recounts, “I was the cargador of the .30 caliber on my squad. I would carry the bullets for the shooters of the machine guns and pinpoint with my M1 tracers where they should aim. There was absolutely no one lower than me.”

Full-on, intense physical fitness and military discipline training began at 5 AM the day after their arrival at the camp. Forced marches interspersed with two-mile, double-time runs lugging full packs were only the beginning. To this was added basic small arms handling, along with training on the 4.2 mortar, the 57mm recoilless rifle, the 3.5 bazooka rocket launcher, and the .30 and .50 caliber machine guns. Because of >his size and strength, Armandito was trained to operate a .30 caliber machine gun. Close quarters combat exercises with and without bayonets added a personal touch. The trainees crawled on elbows and knees with rifles (or much heavier machine guns) cradled on biceps, under live rounds fired three feet above ground, toward the bullets. Their consciousness was seared by the approaching challenge to their life and honor.

After some sense of esprit de corps had welded the men together and their physical fitness permitted more efforts, the training regimen became mobile. It took place at night and at times in torrential weather. Finally, at Garrapatenango, where the entire Brigade assembled for comprehensive exercises, water training was added: amphibious landings in heavy surf, swimming in shark-infested waters, underwater distance swimming — all under fire. One unfortunate recruit, a man called El Cabito, became shark chum.

With so few toilets, and all in full view, personal habits were disrupted, and even became group theatre — more comedic than dramatic (except when pit vipers, scorpions and poisonous spiders were involved). Plagued by piles, Armandito underwent a hemorrhoidectomy at boot camp.

Cachorro’s training included parachute jumps, er . . . jump. He successfully completed preliminary parachute training, but for some reason he can’t explain why he performed only one practice jump, without carrying the hundred pounds of .30 caliber bullet cans it was his job as a cargador to carry. “If I didn't release it properly, it would have crushed me at landing. Never trained for it,” he told me.

One unfortunate recruit, a man called El Cabito, became shark chum.

Perhaps the reason was that the one jump was a near disaster. Cachorro landed in a ceiba tree and ripped his uniform. Tony Zardon, another paratrooper, wasn’t so lucky. The hapless jumper was swept by a violent gust of wind and smashed against a giant tree trunk that broke his back.

The paratroopers had some of the typical flyboy’s disregard for rules and protocol. Two of them, J.J. and Maqueira, had secretly purchased a piglet from a local farmer. They set out to fatten the animal for a Noche Buena (Christmas Eve) feast in case they were still in Guatemala for Christmas. Maqueira warned J.J. that the piglet needed to be watched closely. He’d heard from a credible source that a group of chuters were conspiring to steal the shoat.

One afternoon the Garrapatenango camp was disrupted by a big commotion. El Negrito William was found hanging from a tree, apparently a suicide. His body was lowered and taken to a tent where medics attempted resuscitation. Right away, one medic emerged to announce that he was dead.

It suddenly hit Maqueira. He turned to J.J. and said, “This is a trick! Everything is faked. They’re stealing our piglet!” Maqueira, with a lightning-quick response, ran and caught the thieves red-handed with the piglet. But with their secpret out, Maqueira and J.J., reconsidered. A few days later, they put on a big feast, roasting the pig for all the paratroopers — and nominating El Negrito William for an Oscar.

* * *

Not all disruptions ended in a party. Over the course of the Brigade’s training period, 66 recruits were sentenced to the stockade. They included a wide assortment of miscreants; AWOLs, deserters, Castro agents who had infiltrated the camps, the leaders of a leadership mutiny led by 26-year-old attorney Rodolfo Nodal. Nodal, a member of a distinguished family (his father had once been Cuba’s defense minister), had become the 2nd Battalion’s communications officer. For him, as well as the other men of the Brigade, the nuances of a covert operation left the question of who was in charge — the US or the Cuban exiles — a bit fuzzy. Nodal and his friends set out to clarify the issue, not by challenging orders from the US officers, but by questioning who should have the right to issue orders in the first place.

To the Cubans of Armandito’s 2nd Battalion, Brigade commanders should be appointed only by the Miami-based Frente and its general staff, not by the US camp commander, “Colonel Frank,” and his 38 advisers. Urged on by Nodal, the 2nd Battalion drew a red line in the Guatemalan highlands.

Pepe San Roman, the American-appointed Brigade commander, was in Nodal’s crosshairs. San Roman was a professional soldier, a graduate of Cuba’s military academy and a US Army-trained officer who knew how to follow orders. But, as Peter Wyden explains in his book on the Bay of Pigs, “To Nodal and the other dissidents, Pepe symbolized total submission to the Americans, not only for the present but for the future in Cuba when Castro would be deposed.”

It suddenly hit Maqueira. He turned to J.J. and said, “This is a trick! Everything is faked. They’re stealing our piglet!”

At Camp Trax, debates heated up. Cliques formed, strategy meetings assembled, conspired, broke up, and reformed, and fistfights erupted. Training all but stopped. When two officers from the Miami general staff were sent home by “Colonel Frank” for “playing politics,” tensions reached a crisis point. The Americans ordered all trainees to turn in their weapons. “Nodal and his friends,” Wyden says, “hid eight .45-caliber pistols” to “shoot it out, if necessary. Instead, there was a mutiny.”

Some 230 men “resigned,” including all of Armandito’s 2nd battalion, the entire 3rd battalion — and Pepe San Roman. However, Pepe, wise beyond his 30 years, and having been imprisoned by both the Batista and Castro regimes, was fixed on success. He immediately signed up as an ordinary soldier, saying that the Brigade belonged to no one but “to Cuba, our beloved country.”

The American training officer would have none of these shenanigans. He retorted, “I am boss here, and the commander of the Brigade is still Pepe San Roman.” He ordered San Roman to resume command.

But the astute San Roman took the high road. Wyden reports that he “asked that those men willing to fight with him and to ‘forget about political things’ step to the right.” After a bit more dickering, all but 20 of the men joined San Roman. The Cuban grunts had chosen their leader.

When asked about being an extension of the US military, Dr. Mario Abril, a Brigade 2506 veteran and professor of music at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga responded, “No, we thought of ourselves as independent.”

* * *

After New Year’s 1961, nearly 900 more men swelled the Brigade. But these weren’t students, who would, in the end, constitute the largest proportion of Brigade members (about 20%). Most of the new recruits were older people (the oldest was 61) who had careers and families; or farmers, peasants, and unskilled laborers who’d had their modest landholdings or businesses confiscated, or whose Catholic faith was strong. Ex-soldiers rounded out the final tally at nearly 17% of Brigade members. By the time of the invasion in April, 2,681 men had joined.

Whatever their history, few were crucially motivated by a desire to recover their stolen property, a concern Cachorro dismisses contemptuously. Instead, strong and deep philosophical, moral, religious, and ideological ideals drove them. Abril, a student volunteer in Armandito’s cohort who felt alienated by socialist rhetoric, explained his motivation:

In those days, 1950s, and at that age, 23–24, young men . . . vented their hormonal excesses, social excesses not in the way folks do up here [the United States]. We didn’t get drunk, we didn’t do drugs, what we did was . . . attempted to become activists in politics. There is a long tradition of Latin American youth who took charge and participated in momentous events in the political lives of their countries. Cuba was no exception . . .

In terms of race — a noncontentious category in Cuba but one that Castro tried to join with class warfare to recruit support — the Brigade was pretty mixed, but predominantly lighter than darker. Only about 4% would be called “black” in the Cuban sense, with the rest mulatto, café au lait, swarthy, or white.

Erneido Oliva, the Brigade’s second in command and Armandito’s commanding officer in the Battle of the Rotunda, was a strikingly handsome black Cuban with a huge forehead who had served first under Batista and then later under Castro. An honors graduate of the Cuban Military Academy and an instructor for the US Army’s Caribbean School, Oliva was a professional through and through. When Oliva was captured, Fidel Castro interrogated him separately. He berated him for betraying the Revolution, which, Castro said, “had been fought for black people.” Castro reminded Oliva of the Varadero beach resorts that excluded blacks (an exclusion that was instituted by hotels that catered to American tourists of the 1940s and ’50s but that was otherwise unknown in Cuba). Oliva retorted that he “hadn’t come to Cuba to swim.”

But perhaps this story isn’t true (in that version). Though Haynes Johnson in The Bay of Pigs: The Leaders’ Story of Brigade 2506, attributes it to Oliva, both El Chino and Cachorro, who was sitting two seats away from Cruz, attribute it to Tomas Cruz, Cachorro’s company commander and also black. But in this other version, the interrogation took place on Cuban national TV while Fidel was trying to milk the capture of the invaders for all the propaganda it was worth.

* * *

January 1961 upped the ante and sealed the deal. On the 2nd of the month, Cuba charged at the UN Security Council that the US was preparing an invasion of the island. In a show of defiance, Castro paraded down the streets of Havana his newly acquired Soviet arsenal, consisting of 50 heavy artillery pieces, 125 heavy tanks, 920 anti-aircraft guns, 170 anti-tank batteries, and many rocket launchers (along with the promise of MIG fighters yet to come). The Soviet contribution to Castro’s defenses also included 7,250 machine guns and 167,000 rifles and handguns. The post-invasion Soviet military analysis of the conflict concluded that without those contributions, the invasion at the Bay of Pigs would have succeeded.

The following day, January 3, the US cut diplomatic relations with Cuba. By the end of the month, just a few days after his inauguration, President Kennedy authorized the CIA to proceed with President Eisenhower’s Cuba plan, now officially upgraded to consist of 1,200 men with a planned landing at Trinidad on Cuba’s south coast.

By March, Kennedy was still grappling with transition issues, concentrating on getting his domestic programs and agenda rolling, and dealing with the Laotian crisis and the soon-to-be Berlin crisis. The Cuba project just wasn’t a priority. In fact, not only wasn’t he familiar with its details — such as they were — but he hadn’t given much thought to its implementation and its potential consequences, either domestically or on foreign policy. It was a sideshow without a date, something simmering on a backburner for possible use in a vague future, something the Republican administration had dreamed up, which he figured had a life of its own that its planners and tenders would manage.

The Soviet contribution to Castro’s defenses also included 7,250 machine guns and 167,000 rifles and handguns. Without those contributions, the invasion at the Bay of Pigs would have succeeded.

One crucial piece of intelligence forced minds to focus. The MIG fighters the Soviets had promised Castro were due to arrive in Cuba sometime in April. Cuban pilots were already training in Czechoslovakia to fly them. This addition to the Cuban air force, whose combat readiness at the time consisted of only six jet and six prop fighters, easily destroyed on the tarmac by a surprise attack, would doom the Cuba project to failure. If the Cuban exile invasion was to succeed, it had to be scheduled before the arrival of the MIGs.

Kennedy was irritated by the sudden haste, but gave the order to proceed with final preparations and the setting of a date. Still, he retained the option of cancelling the whole project at the last minute, a detail he adamantly insisted on but which, for a president, usually goes without saying. His vocal insistence on retaining a standard prerogative revealed his inexperience and insecurity.

Though military training in the Guatemala camps was proceeding apace, the political umbrella under which the military campaign would be fought was still lost in negotiations among the many Cuban exile factions. Without a Cuban government-in-exile that would lend credence to the operation and take charge once a successful beachhead occupation was established, the project might fail and its secrecy be blown.

It’s not that the exile leaders hadn’t given their imprimatur to the military operation; it’s that their tendency to cavil over minutiae and stand on finely parsed principle prevented any sort of consensus. So the CIA invited the exile leaders to the Skyways Motel near the Miami International Airport for a meeting designed to impress on them the urgency of unity that the new situation required. On Saturday, March 18, 22 Cubans representing the main anti-Castro organizations met with James Noel, former Havana CIA station chief, in the Skyways’ banquet room. As Jim Rasenberger, author of The Brilliant Disaster, recounts, “The meeting began with a scolding from Noel. There would be no more sweet talk, he told them; while they were squabbling over petty differences in Miami, they were losing Cuba. ‘If you don’t come out of this meeting with a committee, you just forget the whole fuckin’ business, because we’re through.’ The threat worked.”

By Monday morning, left, right, center, and fringes united under one umbrella organization with a blueprint for economic and social policies and a timetable for elections in a free Cuba. Thus was the successor to the Frente formed. The new name was the Consejo Revolucionario Cubano, with Jose Miro Cardona as president of the “Revolutionary Council.”

Miro Cardona’s legitimacy rested on the fact that he had been the last prime minister of Cuba after Fidel Castro’s victory but before Castro personally took over the post. Prior then, he’d been a law professor at the University of Havana. He was chosen to be prime minister immediately after the success of the Revolution, by Manuel Urrutia, Castro’s first, handpicked president (who also later resigned). After only five weeks in office, Miro Cardona quit the position in disgust over Communist influence in the new government.

* * *

How President Eisenhower’s “covert action plan against Castro” became the Bay of Pigs is a diagram resembling options on a wildly branching logic tree planted in an overlooked policy corner almost as an afterthought, then fed growth hormones by several separate ambitious committees, pruned by a myopic Edward Scissorhands, and given more hormones by more self-important committees, none of which was aware of what the other committees were up to; a tree finally trimmed beyond saving by a neurotic gardener with a chainsaw who couldn’t see the tree for the branches. At different times, the plan ranged from a Fidel Castro-style, just-a-few-men guerrilla infiltration near the Escambray Mountains to a WWII Normandy-type invasion. In the end it was neither. The operation became an unwieldy mix of the two approaches, lacking the strength of either.

Originally, the plan was a guerrilla infiltration of a few hundred men near the city of Trinidad at the base of the Escambray Mountains. Those mountains already harbored anti-Castro guerrillas, and the city wasn’t known for its love of Fidel.

Four days before the scheduled invasion and air attack, the 16 B-26s were halved to eight by a nervous President Kennedy. The decision doomed the operation to failure.

In November 1960, as the recruits multiplied and the Pentagon, the CIA, and other expert advisors offered their opinions, the infiltration was upgraded to an invasion. But the invasion next to a big city scared Secretary of State Dean Rusk and newly-elected President Kennedy. It seemed too high-profile for a covert action. So the landing location was shifted 100 miles west to the Bay of Pigs, a lightly inhabited swamp completely unsuited to guerrilla activity. The infiltration-turned-invasion then became a much bigger invasion supported by US air and sea power whose rules of engagement precluded any combat — unless first fired upon.

Along with the main invasion, two smaller ones were planned. One hundred sixty-eight men were scheduled to land near Baracoa, in Oriente province at the far eastern end of Cuba, not far from where Castro had first landed in 1956. As in the original plans for the main force, these men were to hie to the mountains and ensconce themselves as guerrillas. They would also constitute a diversionary tactic that would give Castro the impression that the invasion was island-wide.

Ditto for an “invasion” in Pinar Del Rio province, at the far western end of Cuba. Dreamed up by the CIA, and executed so flawlessly that Fidel interrupted his command at the Bay of Pigs to rush to Pinar del Rio, this invasion was a complete ruse carried out with smoke and mirrors, loudspeakers, pyrotechnics, projectors, offshore hubbub, and not one single invader. While this invasion achieved its goal, the one in Oriente failed when the invaders discovered that a substantial force of Castro militia was awaiting them. They played it safe, tried landing again, but called it quits after a second attempt.

Back to the planning stage. Once the “action plan” had been upgraded to an invasion, the exile force required a “navy” for transport. Enter Eduardo Garcia and his five sons, owners of the Garcia Line, a Havana-based Cuban bulk shipping company with offices in New York. Garcia, a Jabba the Hutt lookalike, wasn’t interested in profit, just in getting rid of Castro. He donated six old and slow but serviceable ships, at cost. But he didn’t want to lose them. After being reassured that the exile “air force” (see below) would annihilate Castro’s air force, and that a US Navy escort (to be used only as a deterrent, but authorized to return fire if fired upon) would accompany his ships to the three-mile territorial limit, Garcia agreed. As an added defense, the ships were retrofitted with .50 caliber, deck-mounted machine guns. For the actual landing, 36 18 and 1/2 foot aluminum boats were purchased to supplement the three LCUs (landing craft, utility) and four LCVPs (landing craft, vehicle and personnel) already available.

Castro’s air force consisted of only 20 planes — six Lockheed T-33 jet fighters, six ex-RAF prop-driven Hawker Sea Fury fighters, six Douglas B-26 Invaders, a C-47 transport, and a PBY Catalina flying boat.

The Cuban exile air force consisted of 16 Douglas B-26 Invaders kitted up for offensive operations with rockets and bombs (out of 32 B-26s available), and a half-dozen C-46 and C-54 transports, but no fighters. The B-26s were to destroy Castro’s air force on the tarmac in a surprise attack in conjunction with the seaborne landings.

Four days before the scheduled invasion and air attack, the 16 B-26s were halved to eight by a nervous President Kennedy, worried that the attack was too high-profile. The decision doomed the operation to failure — not all of Castro’s air force was destroyed, and those that remained sank exile supply ships and killed many men in the attacking force. After the fiasco was over, JFK averred that he hadn’t realized how important the original air strike plan was, and that he hadn’t been adequately briefed.

Intelligence reports estimated that discontent in the Cuban population was widespread and that internal resistance groups were present and well organized in every province, often with the help of exile infiltrators assisted by the CIA. By February 1961, CIA-trained infiltration teams doubled their efforts in preparation for the coming “covert action plan,” so as to be able to coordinate with the invaders, carrying out widespread sabotage and recruitment. The Brigade battalions, companies, and squads were purposely undersized, in the expectation that locals would join the effort and bring them to full force. Armandito’s 2nd Battalion, for example, only had 183 men.

The invasion force was labeled a brigade because, in military parlance, a force of 1,400 to 4,000 men is a brigade. For the invasion, the Brigade numbered 1,447 men.

The popular uprisings never materialized. Some sources attribute this to popular support for the Revolution. The truth is more revealing. As early as the summer of 1960, Castro knew about the coming invasion. All of Cuba talked about it; he just didn’t know when it would come. In early January 1961 the New York Times disclosed the location of the training camps in Guatemala.

Castro took preemptive action. The Escambray Mountains, a perennial refuge of anti-government guerrillas, needed to be cleared out — once and for all. On January 1, 1961, he dispatched 70,000 troops in 80 battalions to clear the mountains of the no more than 600 men and a few women who constituted the guerrillas.

As early as the summer of 1960, Castro knew about the coming invasion. All of Cuba talked about it; he just didn’t know when it would come.

His first move was to relocate the 10,000–20,000 peasants who lived in the area — by force. On January 11, he visited the area to take stock of the situation. He sent Osvaldo Ramirez, captain of the rebellion, an ultimatum: “I know that you’re an idealist. I propose that you come down and talk with me so I can convince you that this isn’t Communism; and I guarantee that if I don’t convince you, I’ll give you plenty of guarantees that you can return up to your mountains.”

Ramirez instantly replied, “Tell Fidel that I accept the discussion with him, but with one variant: THAT HE COME UP TO THE ESCAMBRAY AND THAT I GUARANTEE THAT IF HE DOESN’T CONVINCE US, WE’LL GUARANTEE HIS RETURN."

Castro launched the attack.

The fighting was fierce. By February 10, only 100 guerrillas remained alive. Still, it took until mid-March for Castro to declare that the Escambray was rid of vermin. Only a handful remained to carry on the resistance.

After he’d gotten rid of the vanguard, Castro went after anyone and everyone whom his Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (neighborhood busybodies) fingered as malcontents. According to Grayston Lynch, author of Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs — as quoted in the Cuban Information Archives — before the invasion there were 50,000 political prisoners in Cuba. Another 250,000 people (or about 4% of Cuba’s population) were arrested by the day of the landing, some summarily executed (200,000 in Havana alone). Of that quarter million, 100,000 were arrested because of an American SNAFU.

Originally, the Bay of Pigs plan had called for Brigade air strikes against Castro’s air force at dawn on the day of the invasion. At the last minute, someone moved the air strikes up two days, giving Castro advance notice. The element of surprise was lost. Those 100,000 people were arrested during those two days.

The quarter-million detainees were herded into sports stadia, movie theatres, and any large place that could accommodate them. None of these places had adequate sanitation, shelter, or food. In a speech on April 24, five days after the defeat of the invasion, Castro explained his reasoning in terms reminiscent of the omelet remark attributed to many revolutionaries:

In conjunction with the actions of our military forces, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution acted. It became necessary to arrest all suspicious people, it became necessary to arrest all those persons that for some reason might become active in or help the counterrevolution. In this type of operation, naturally, some injustices will always be committed, but it is inevitable.

I repeat that there might have been cases of injustice . . . [but] no one can be so egotistical as to waste any time on such unimportant questions that it detracts from today’s and future generations’ jubilation.

Fatherland or death!

Cuba’s population in 1961 was about seven million. Nearly one million Cubans had exiled themselves to the US, Spain, Italy, Mexico, and other countries. Counting prisoners and exiles, that’s nearly 17% of Cubans actively opposed to Fidel Castro.

In spite of all the regime’s precautions, a few quite notable uprisings still occurred. On April 14, three days prior to the invasion, a spectacular act of sabotage totally destroyed El Encanto, Cuba’s largest and most popular department store, which had been nationalized the previous year. The destruction was caused by introducing white phosphorous into the air conditioning vents — and then lighting it. The damage totaled $6 million. On the same day in Santiago de Cuba, at the other end of the island, El Ancla and La Comercial, two big nationalized department stores were firebombed with the loss of their entire inventory. Additionally, on April 16, 14 armed counter-revolutionaries led an uprising in Las Villas Province.

During the invasion itself, 50 to 60 civilians would join it, helping to carry supplies, caring for the wounded, providing food and water and even taking up arms to fight Castro, with an equal number of Castro’s militia switching sides and volunteering to fight with the Brigade.

But the propaganda preparation for the invasion did not go well. Radio Swan, located on a tiny, rocky islet claimed by Nicaragua, had a threefold purpose. Modeled on a propaganda radio station run by David Atlee Phillips during the CIA-aided Jacobo Arbenz overthrow in 1954 in Guatemala, it was meant to provide unbiased news reports to a country with state-controlled, heavily censored media. It also spun news toward its own ends and even disseminated plenty of disinformation — whatever aided the “covert action plan.” Finally, it was meant to incite the Cuban population to open revolt, both with an artillery barrage of disaffection before the invasion and an outright call to arms during the attack, augmented by the dropping of propaganda leaflets over Havana at the moment of truth.

The CIA had no experience with assassination. The idea to kill Castro originally came from Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s long-serving dictator.

Unfortunately, its cryptic broadcasts — with nonsense non-sequitur phrases such as “The fish is red; Chico is in the house; Visit him” — caused it to lose relevance and reliability, especially during the unexpected failures of the original plan when scripts were lacking.

Probably the best-publicized part of the “covert action plan against Cuba” was the CIA’s Rube Goldberg machinations to assassinate Fidel Castro. Again, it wasn’t quite that simple.

For one, the CIA had no experience with assassination. The idea originally came from Rafael Trujillo, the Dominican Republic’s long-serving dictator who had a long-running feud with Castro. Attempting to overthrow the Cuban dictator (in retribution for Castro’s attempt to overthrow Trujillo in June 1959), he teamed up with the Mafia. Castro had rescinded the Santo Traficante, Meyer Lansky, and Momo Giancana casino franchises in Cuba. But it’s not safe to fool with mother Mafia. She wanted revenge. In August 1959, Trujillo attempted an invasion of Cuba coupled with a Mafia-planned execution of Castro. It failed; but as far as the Mafia was concerned, it was unfinished business

Enter the CIA with Eisenhower’s plan. Many ideas were launched — eight according to the Congressional (Church) Committee, 638 according to Castro’s chief of counterintelligence — including the famous exploding cigar scenario. Only a few floated. None succeeded. The entire scheme was subbed out to the Mafia, with no CIA oversight or professional advice (other than the poison-laced cold cream type of ideas). Just money. At that time, anyway you looked at it, no amount of money could persuade anyone to commit suicide to kill a foreign head of state: the assassins surely would be caught (with no virgins awaiting in the afterlife). The rationale for the attempt was that cutting off the head of the serpent, even if you yourself couldn’t wield the sword, would atrophy the body. It all came to naught.




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The Tower of Babble

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I don’t look good in hats. Especially not when they’re made of tinfoil. It’s quite possible that some of you may picture me in one as you read this essay. But I hail the Brexit vote as a huge and very welcome step away from a one-world government.

Episcopalians generally don’t worry much about such a thing. No priest or theologian in my church, so far as I’ve ever heard, has warned us against it. I think we’re generally supposed to regard the stories in Genesis as having edifying spiritual lessons to teach us, but parallels are seldom drawn between them and our 21st-century world. Please excuse me for bringing religion into the discussion, but I see a definite parallel in the European Union.

Instead of constructing a more prosperous and harmonious world for everybody, the faceless bureaucrats appear to want to rule over us all.

In the story in Genesis 11, the peoples of the world have become one unified mass. They’re proud of their unity, which they take as a sign that they can do anything they set their minds to. And they begin to build a monument to themselves and their greatness: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves: otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” We are told that the Lord does not share their enthusiasm. “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”

God does a lot of really human stuff in the Old Testament; he even has to move around to keep track of us. If I were to adhere too closely to the story in Genesis, I’d need to believe not only that he has no idea what’s going on until he comes down to see it but alsothat he thinks people are able to succeed in doing whatever they attempt, which obviously they can’t. Nevertheless, the story seems to be true about certain people’s intentions. Consider those of the people who run the EU. Instead of constructing a more prosperous and harmonious world for everybody, as they claim, the faceless bureaucrats appear to want to rule over us all. Ruling the world is an ambition even older than the Bible. It shows no sign of dying out today.

Genesis reports that “the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel — because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world.” In whose interest is it, really, for the world to speak the same language? And in the deeper sense, what would that mean?

It might not necessarily mean that everybody would understand the same words but that everybody would have the same ideas — that we could all be gathered together by one governing body and made to conform to one overriding plan. Tyrants have always loved that concept, because it would make it possible for them to keep everyone under their control. For the rest of us, however, it’s a much more dubious prospect.

The teeming mass of humanity on this planet was never meant to be governed by a single human entity.

In an earlier story in Genesis, the serpent tempts our first parents with the promise that if they eat the fruit God has forbidden them, they will be like gods. That’s the ambition of everyone who has ever desired to rule the world. It could very credibly be claimed that it’s what the lords and masters of the European Union aspire to do.

In reality, the teeming mass of humanity on this planet was never meant to be governed by a single human entity. It may be too big a job for anyone but God. At any rate, it’s an endeavor no person or organization on this earth has ever been able to accomplish. Whether we believe in God, in Natural Law or in the Unseen Hand of the Market, centuries of experience show that we are far more justified in trusting any of those entities than in trusting any aspiring leader, or set of leaders.

We possess technology that, until this century, would have been unimaginable outside of a dystopian sci-fi movie. Never before has the possibility of a one-world government loomed so menacingly. If the trend toward greater government centralization continues, tyrants will have the capability of monitoring our communications, our most intimate movements, our facial expressions, and our very thoughts. They will be able to stretch that tower all the way to the sky — perhaps even into space. If we don’t stand up and dismantle the project now, the time may be approaching when it will be unstoppable.

But it’s a long way from being unstoppable yet. What the Brits voted to abandon, on the 24th of June, could just as well be called the Tower of Babble. Constructed of empty promises and held together by political doublespeak and outright bribery, the latest thrust at one-world government stands on shaky ground. Now, other nations have apparently been inspired to consider exit referenda of their own. Perhaps Americans will be moved to reconsider the possibility of decentralizing our own political authority.

Will that tower fall? If it does, the crash will be heard around the world. To the devotees of the superstate, it will be the sound of catastrophe. But to those of us who hold freedom dear, it will be the music of heaven.




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They Couldn’t Have Said That!

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On May 27, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that his city had received a grant of $9 million dollars to employ people from Los Angeles who have recently gotten out of prison and train them in “life skills.” I’ve published a book about prisons, and I still do research in that area. I’ve usually liked the convicts and ex-convicts I’ve met. I’m very much in favor of giving them the clichéd second chance, and I don’t think I’d have any more worries about employing one of them than about employing an otherwise similar person who had never been in prison. People who land in prison tend to be fairly young, and they are much less likely to commit crimes when they get older. Also, as a prison warden remarked to me, many convicts committed their crimes when they were drunk or high, and they’re different people when they’re not that way. So if they don’t go crazy with substances again, why not employ them?

Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

Nevertheless, I did have some problems with Garcetti’s glee over his $9 million grant, because the money came from CalTrans, the California state agency that is supposed to be maintaining our roads and is not, despite the fact that it constantly demands more money. The fact that the money came from CalTrans was obscured by news “reporting” that spoke about an “agreement” or “pact” between CalTrans and the city, or simply said that “between” them they would spend $9 million. I don’t think the source of the money was intentionally obscured; it was represented in that way because the news writers just didn’t care. What’s another $9 million of the taxpayers’ money? And who cares whether everyone in the state should pay for services to Angelenos, or just the Angelenos themselves?

More upsetting was the fact that nobody paid any attention to the strange things that Garcetti actually said in making his announcement — nobody, that is, except the “John and Ken Show,” an afternoon radio program that raucously exposes the misdeeds of California politicians. John and Ken ran and reran the audio of Garcetti’s remarks:

When we invest in people we don’t know where things will turn out. But when people have paid their debt to society, our debt of gratitude should be not just thanking them for serving that time, but allowing them a pathway back in. They will also have access to services from life skills training to cognitive behavior therapy. You can’t just give folks a job; you have to give services with the job.[emphasis added]

Who would say such a thing? And who would neglect to mention it, if they were reporting on a politician — the mayor of the nation’s second largest city — who said it? The answer: people who have spoken and listened to the language of political correctness for so long that they no longer recognize its most ridiculous extremes as . . . well, ridiculous — abnormal, absurd, insulting to the intelligence. The episode provides an index of how low the American “elite” has sunk. Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

A few days after the “John and Ken Show” — which happens to be the most popular public affairs show in Southern California — started making fun of Garcetti, he grabbed an interview with a “John and Ken” reporter and said, pleasantly, that he (the mayor) had been confused. His remarks had been delivered on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and they had gotten mixed up with thoughts about members of the military for whose service we should be thankful. To my mind, this just made things worse. Garcetti’s excuse was that he had, sort of naturally, confused the idea of “service” when it applies to fighting for one’s country with the idea “service” when it applies to being sent to prison.

Oh well. From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same. Should I bring up the “workplace violence” at Ft. Hood?

Let’s follow the path from the ridiculous to the truly degraded. The man who shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando was a Muslim fanatic who repeatedly claimed religion as his motivation. Is there any mystery here? No. This was a religious crime, by now familiar to the whole world. For the editorial board of the New York Times, there’s no mystery either — except that it is somehow plain to the Times that Republican politicians were to blame for the atrocity:

While the precise motivation for the rampage remains unclear, it is evident that Mr. Mateen was driven by hatred toward gays and lesbians. Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur where bigotry is allowed to fester, where minorities are vilified and where people are scapegoated for political gain. Tragically, this is the state of American politics, driven too often by Republican politicians who see prejudice as something to exploit, not extinguish.

This sort of thing is beneath contempt, and almost beneath comment. The solemn denunciation of hate is itself an obvious product of hate. But hate is nothing compared to the cheap rhetorical tricks by which the writers try to develop reasons for their gross and obvious lie. The tricks are clear evidence that the authors know they are lying and are proud of their ability to continue lying without, as they imagine, getting caught.

From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same.

Do atrocious crimes happen in a vacuum? No. Do they tend to happen where bigotry is allowed to fester, minorities are vilified, etc.? Yes. And are there politicians in America who exploit prejudices (besides the prejudices that sway the New York Times)? Why, yes. Therefore, it was American politicians, specifically Republican politicians, who incited Mateen’s murders. A clever arrangement of thoughts!

Well, the authors must think so. It must never occur to these brilliant people that readers, even their readers (the numbers of whom are diminishing every hour), could possibly respond by saying, “Stop! Wait a minute! Wasn’t the atmosphere for this kind of slaughter the bigotry, vilification, and scapegoating practiced without let or shame by the radical Islamists whom Mateen claimed as his inspiration?” Which of course it was. Which of course it continues to be, not just in America but in Islamist regimes throughout the world, many of them the friends of the Times’ good friends. Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing. This is a vacuum that the Times can’t imagine anyone noticing.

Another view of the vacuum was provided by the Times’ idol and oracle, President Obama, in his recent discourse on the demands by people on the right, and people with sense, that he call Islamic terrorism “Islamic terrorism,” instead of “terror,” “hate,” and other unmodified, meaningless terms. These demands, alas, were not prompted by Word Watch, which has always wanted people to talk so that other people can understand what they’re saying. But the demands made sense. They were prompted by a realization that the president, like any other head of a vast bureaucracy, commands the apparatus as much by what he does not say as by what he actually does say. There are many indications that by refusing to make radical Islam a concern of law enforcement, by in fact saying that terrorism has nothing to do with Islamand that ISIS itself is not Islamic. Obama sends government agencies out on a futile search for “hate” instead of a search for certain specific fanatics who want to kill other people.

Finally, on June 14, faced with a catastrophic example of what he must have wanted to call nightclub violence, Obama meditated upon the weighty problem of nomenclature. Since he is a constant public speaker and an alleged author, his ideas about words would surely be worthy of consideration. And they are. “Calling a threat by a different name,” he pronounced, “does not make it go away.”

Reading that, one remembers the old chestnut about whether Senator McCarthy had any sense of decency. “Have you no logic, sir,” one wants to say. “At long last, have you no logic?” If calling a threat by a different name doesn’t make it go away, why do you insist on calling Islamic terrorism by so many different names?

The truth, I’m afraid, is that somehow such people as the president and the editors of the New York Times worry more about the tender feelings of radical Muslims — who violently oppose every value that the modern liberals profess — than about safeguarding the lives of normal Americans, gay or straight, white or black, Muslim or non-Muslim. This ruthlessness of sentiment is something I cannot explain.

Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing.

We saw it again, in a particularly ridiculous way, on June 20, when the FBI, under orders from the Department of Justice, issued a “transcript” of the Orlando assassin’s electronic conversations during the atrocity. The transcript was “redacted.” For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, redacted means censored. The conversations were long, but practically none of the words appeared in the transcript. All possible references to radical Islamic contacts and inspirations were removed. The alleged reason was that the government didn’t want to “propagandize” for the radicals, and that it did not want the surviving victims to be “retraumatized.”

Either the Attorney General and her employees believe this or not. If not, they’re lying. If so, they have a very strange idea of the effects of public discourse. If someone goes into a nightclub and starts slaughtering people, and in the process claims you as his inspiration, is that a good notice for you? Doubtful. More doubtful is the notion that translating the assassin’s “Allah” as “God” will save the feelings of his victims. (Yes, “Allah” is a word for the more or less shared god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but in English it is always and everywhere rendered as “Allah.”)

All this was so exceedingly ridiculous that the government relented and published another redaction, which it called unredacted. The government relented — but it did not repent. This version apparently still lacked much of the original, and it still rendered “Allah” as “God.” I have no questions to ask the government about God, but I would like to know what all those expurgated words may have been. I would also like to know — really know — what these strange officials have in mind. Unfortunately, all you get from thinking about this is the craving for a good stiff drink.

I don’t have a drink to offer you, but here’s some good news. Fox’s late-night comedy show, “Red Eye,” which rose to greatness under the wonderful Greg Gutfeld, is under new management (Greg got a one-man show), and it seems to be working out. Tom Shillue, the new host, maintains Greg’s style of humor, one element of which is a constant stream of clichés deployed in solemnly hilarious ways. When Greg wanted to refer to Obama, he used to say, in an ominous tone, “President Obama, if that’s his real name.” Now Tom is discussing “the reclusive billionaire, Donald Trump.” This kind of stuff goes by too fast for you to wonder, “Why am I laughing?” But it’s great and you don’t forget it.

Greg Gutfeld is a libertarian, and probably Tom Shillue is also, though I haven’t heard him say so. I wish there were more libertarians with a sense of humor. For a single, delicious moment I thought that Gary Johnson, Libertarian nominee for president, had one of those things. In a television interview on May 23, I heard him say, “Most people are libertarians; it’s just that they don’t know it.”

I thought that was hilarious. Imagine: a nation full of libertarians, almost none of whom ever manage to vote for the Libertarian Party! What are they thinking? Are they drunk? Stoned? Are they as illiterate as the thousands of Californians, some of them celebrities, who recently discovered that when they registered to vote as partisans of the American Independent Party, they weren’t actually registering as “independents”? Or are they playing their own massive joke on the politicians — consistently voting for principles they detest? The zany adventures of a wacky electorate!

But Johnson didn’t smile; he just kept talking as if this absurdity were true! I’ve heard him say it several times since, and I’ve been forced to conclude that he is only being funny in the way that politicians usually are funny — unconsciously.

For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, "redacted" means "censored."

The sad truth is that most Americans are not libertarians. They are the beneficiaries of a great libertarian tradition, inseparable from this noble nation, but they are not libertarians. They are libertarian about gun laws but not about drug laws. Or they are libertarian about taxes but not about gun laws or drug laws. Or they are libertarian about the internet but not about taxes or gun laws or drug laws or anything else. They are libertarian about X but not about Y through Z or A through W.

These proclamations of Mr. Johnson are either pious lies or self-deception. He’s a nice guy, so I strongly suspect the latter. But they are uncomfortably close to the perpetual declarations of the mainline politicians, who are always assuring us that “what the American people really care about” or “what the American people really want” is miraculously identical with what the politicians themselves want or care about. That’s one reason why there’s so little real argument in American politics. The strategy is not to say anything new, anything you might have to argue for, but simply to compliment the audience as fulsomely as you can, then slip offstage, bearing away as many votes as you’ve managed to collect. I can’t see any reason to vote for someone like that, except to keep someone worse from winning.

I’m sorry if I done Mr. Johnson wrong. If he’s got any amusing remarks lying around, I hope he’ll come out with them. We can use them right now.




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Revolution by Revolutionary Means

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When Barbra Streisand announced Hamilton as the recipient of the Tony for Best Musical on June 12, it was the most anti-climactic award in the history of awards shows — everyone knew it was going to win. (I knew it the moment I saw the show, even without seeing the other potential contenders. It’s that impressive.) Yet it was the most electrifying Tony show in ages, precisely because Hamilton was going to win. Audiences across the country would finally get a taste of what everyone had been talking about, because at the Tonys the casts of each nominee for Best Musical perform a medley of scenes from their show. The cast of Hamilton closed the night and brought down the house.

Hamilton has become a nationwide phenomenon this year, with people who have never attended a Broadway show purchasing the cast album and reading the Ron Chernow biography on which the play is based. Even the Treasury Department has been caught up in the newfound enthusiasm for its first Treasurer, announcing, after years of promising that a woman would replace Hamilton on the ten-dollar bill, that Jackson would be replaced on the twenty instead. Hamilton has had that kind of influence.

Hamilton erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion.

So does the play live up to the hype? It’s just a bunch of rap songs and hip-hop dances, right? Anyone could do that. It’s street entertainment, not Broadway! And the show isn’t even accurate — they cast minority actors for the major roles of Washington, Hamilton, Burr, Lafayette and the Schuyler sisters — only King George is played by a white man. Doesn’t Lin-Manuel Miranda — who wrote the music, lyrics, and book, and stars in the production — know anything?

As a matter of fact, Miranda knows plenty. His decision to use rap, hip-hop and minorities for Hamilton was carefully calculated to tell a richer, truer story than racial “accuracy” could have achieved.

Let’s start with the rap. To the untrained ear (and the untrained rapper) it’s the laziest form of rhythm and rhyme, seeming to ignore all rules about meter and feet so as to shove as many syllables into a single beat of music as the human mouth can manage. It’s also associated with minorities and outsiders. Miranda chose rap for both reasons. “Rap is uniquely suited to tell Hamilton’s story. It has more words per measure than any other musical genre . . . It has density, and if Hamilton’s writing had anything, it was density,” Miranda explained to Graham Messick in an interview for 60 Minutes. “Hamilton spoke in whole paragraphs, so the opening song of our show is this crazy run-on sentence":

How does a bastard, orphan,
son of a whore an’
a Scotsman,
dropped in a forgotten
spot in
the Caribbean
by Providence,
impoverished in squalor
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?

Well, OK — you have to hear the rhythm and tone to experience the passion and cleverness of the line. But trust me — when it’s sung, it works. Miranda says he took weeks to get each couplet right. “Every couplet needed to be the best couplet I ever wrote. It took me a year to write ‘My Shot,’ which is Hamilton’s big ‘I want’ song,” he says. He imbues his lyrics with the playfulness and creativity of a Cole Porter (one of his early influences) but with a decidedly non-Cole Porter ferocity. It took six years to write the show, financed in part from his success with his Broadway debut In the Heights, also a Tony winner for Best Musical.

And what about those minority actors? Here’s the effect it had on me: it erased my impression of the Founding Fathers as white-wigged, brocade-jacketed, lace-jabotted, upper-crust-accented aristocrats whose success as founders of the free world was a foregone conclusion. It reminded me forcefully that the colonists were themselves immigrants, and the Founders were outsiders who were working against the powerful government, not part of it. In essence they were the Occupy movement of their day, but they weren’t sitting around waiting for someone to fix the injustices they saw. They risked everything they had, even their lives, and they were not “throwin’ away their shot” — their one shot — at freedom and self-government.

It made me realize, too, that the founders had the mental, physical, and financial resources to focus on just one battle — one shot — for political liberation from the monarchy of King George. They did not have the power or resources to overturn all injustices at once. Thomas Jefferson recognized the evil of slavery and in his draft of the Declaration of Independence furiously inveighed against the slave trade. But that was a battle that would have to wait for another day. Just as Martin Luther King focused on civil rights for black Americans and left the fight for gay rights to the next generation, so the Founders blazed the trail for political freedom but left the fight for racial and gender equality for generations to come. Future generations will look back and criticize us too for not recognizing the needs of other marginalized groups. The Founders had the power and resources for “just one shot,” and they would likely have failed if they had tried to shoot in every direction at once.

The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Miranda also recognizes the important influence of the women who surrounded Hamilton, particularly the three Schuyler sisters, one of whom he married and another of whom he loved. Peter Stone included women to some extent in 1776, with John Adams’ letters to and from Abigail and Jefferson’s visit from his wife Martha as he is writing the Declaration. But in 1776 the women were mostly back home in Massachusetts or Virginia, wearing their pretty gowns and taking care of their lovely homes. They show up for a moment but remain mostly offstage, while the men create a nation. By contrast, the Schuyler sisters and other women in Miranda’s cast and chorus are an ongoing, integral part of the action.

The decision to cast actors in multiple roles also adds to the message of liberty as a living movement. I was keenly disappointed when Lafayette went back to France at the end of Act 1, because I had been so enamored by Daveed Diggs’ charismatic performance. Not to worry — Diggs returned in Act 2 as Jefferson, with an even greater intensity and charisma. This was not a money-saving tactic on the part of the producers; in fact, all the actors whose characters die in Act 1 return in Act 2 with new roles. This technique reminds us that revolution is not about a single person. The idea of liberty cannot die. When one hero falls, another rises up to continue the fight. And that one is likely to be even stronger and more charismatic.

Sadly, many of the actors who created the roles of this landmark play are leaving the cast this summer. I’m grateful I was able to see the original cast — it’s a moment I will remember as vividly as I remember seeing Les Miserables in 1985 with Colm Wilkinson and Patti Lupone. It was still in previews; the music was brand new, and it was breathtaking. I look forward to seeing what the actors of Hamilton do next.

But the beauty of this show is that new actors can enter the roles and the message will remain. As Miranda points out, in America we would keep changing leaders, and it would work. We didn’t need a monarchy. So my hope is that when a touring company comes to a theater near you with its new leaders in the roles, Hamilton will still have its message and its passion — that it doesn’t need a Miranda or a Diggs. Music and theater arts schools had better start adding rap to their repertoires, because Hamilton is going to be touring for a long time to come.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "Hamilton," directed by Thomas Kail. Richard Rogers Theater, New York.



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A Normal Country in a Normal Time Ever Again?

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The collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1989–1991 closed an important chapter not only in Russian history, but in our own as well.

For 50 years after Pearl Harbor, the United States, a nation enjoined to isolation by its founders, had labored to save Western civilization, and indeed the world, from Nazi and Soviet totalitarianism. It had won through against both enemies, though at considerable cost to itself.

The war of 1941–1945 against Nazi Germany and militarist Japan cost the lives of 400,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. We must, of course, never forget the sacrifice those men made for victory. Lost lives aside, however, the war actually benefited America tremendously. We emerged from it as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb. Our economy in 1945 accounted for almost 50% of the world’s total output; we possessed a wealth of modern plant and equipment, and we were far ahead of the rest of the world in most if not all cutting-edge technologies. Our infrastructure was the most modern and efficient in the world, and there was more (such as the national highway system) to come. Our debt was high, but we owed most of it to ourselves, and were quite capable of paying it off. The terrible days of the Great Depression were over, seemingly for good; the soup kitchens and shantytowns of the 1930s were gone, while an expanding middle class that for the first time included blue-collar workers was enjoying a prosperity greater than any other nation had known.

If culturally the America of 1945 was in no way comparable to Periclean Athens or Augustan Rome, there was nevertheless a certain vitality evident in American arts and letters. Modernism was in its heyday, and its capital was no longer Paris but New York. The undifferentiated mass barbarism of the postmodernist present was, in the period 1945–1965, almost inconceivable.

We emerged from World War II as the greatest military power on earth, with unchallengeable air and sea power and a monopoly on the atomic bomb.

The costs of the Cold War against Soviet Communism were both more subtle and more profound than those incurred in World War II, although it was not until the 1960s that these costs began to be felt. Dallas and its legacies — the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and his war in Vietnam — initiated a period of decline in American power, prestige, and prosperity. The fall of Saigon in 1975 and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 (the latter, as it turned out, the last in a series of Communist takeovers in what was then known as the Third World) seemed to mark a turn in the historical tide. Not that communism, as a doctrine and system of government, could stand comparison to Western values; it most assuredly could not. But the West, and particularly the United States, appeared to be in terminal decline. By the late 1970s a failure of will, of morale, was palpably in the air. Vietnam looked increasingly like an American version of the expedition to Syracuse — that unnecessary and, ultimately, disastrous campaign undertaken by ancient Athens, and memorably recorded in the pages of Thucydides.

Yet Athens, despite its defeat at Syracuse, and despite waging war simultaneously against Sparta and the vast Persian Empire, rallied and regained the upper hand in the Peloponnesian War. It was only later that war à outrance and treason within brought about Athens’ final defeat and the end of its primacy in the ancient world.

America in the 1980s rallied in a similar fashion, emerging from the nadir of defeat in Vietnam to challenge Soviet imperialism once more, and then, by a policy of peace through strength, giving the sclerotic Soviet system a final push that sent it to its well-deserved place on the trash heap of history. With this the 50-year struggle against totalitarianism was over, and freedom had triumphed. Or had it? At just this moment, in 1990, Jeane Kirkpatrick, formerly Ronald Reagan’s UN Ambassador and a prominent neoconservative, published an article in the National Interest. It was titled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time,” and it put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve “full-spectrum dominance,” i.e., world domination.

Kirkpatrick, a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment, began her essay by stating that a good society is not defined by its foreign policy but rather by the “existence of democracy, opportunity, fairness; by the relations among its citizens, the kind of character nurtured, and the quality of life lived.”

Kirkpatrick put forth a vision utterly different from that held by most of her fellow neocons, who in the aftermath of victory were advocating that the United States seek to achieve world domination.

She went on to write that “Foreign policy becomes a major aspect of a society only [emphasis added] if its government is expansionist, imperial, aggressive, or when it is threatened by aggression.” The end of the Cold War, she averred, “frees time, attention, and resources for American needs.”

Kirkpatrick’s vision was right for America in 1990, and it remains so now. But that vision, alas, has never been fulfilled.

In her essay Kirkpatrick warned that foreign policy elites — the denizens of government bureaucracies, universities, and thinktanks — had become altogether too influential and powerful during the 50 years’ emergency, and that their interests were by no means aligned with those of the citizenry as a whole. She made two other very important points: that restraint on the international stage is not the same thing as isolationism, and that popular control of foreign policy is vitally necessary to prevent elite, minority opinion from determining the perceived national interest. With respect to the latter point Kirkpatrick neither said nor implied that the American people should make policy directly. She acknowledged — correctly — that professional diplomats and other experts are required for the proper execution of national policy. But policy in the broad sense must reflect the views of the people and must be circumscribed by the amount of blood and treasure the people are willing to sacrifice for any particular foreign policy objective.

Her concept of a polity in which the citizenry sets or at least endorses the goals of foreign policy admittedly has its troubling aspects. For one thing, it is far from certain that the citizenry as a whole — the masses, to be blunt — will choose to adopt wise policies. In Athens the expedition against Syracuse was enthusiastically endorsed by the Assembly, and history is replete with further examples of the popular will leading to disaster. Flowing from this is a second problem: the ability of clever demagogues or cabals to sway or bypass popular opinion in favor of policies that are inimical to the general interest, and that often turn out to be disastrous. Post-World War II American history provides numerous examples of this: the CIA’s 1953 overthrow of a democratic government in Iran at the behest of British and American oil interests, with consequences that we are still trying to deal with today; the Bay of Pigs (1961), which set in motion a chain of events that nearly led to nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis; the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, both of which received initial popular support as a result of outright deception perpetrated by a few powerful men with an agenda. (The phony Tonkin Gulf incident opened the way to escalation in Vietnam, while the falsehoods about WMD, anthrax, and Saddam Hussein’s connection to 9/11 made possible George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.)

Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”

Nevertheless, the alternative to popular control over foreign policy is the placing of the nation’s destiny in the hands of an elite that, by its very nature, typically has little understanding of the needs and desires of the people as a whole. Such elites are, unfortunately, quite prone to committing disastrous errors of judgment — witness the events mentioned above. Plato’s guardians are rarely found in the flesh. Gibbon pointed to the Five Good Emperors who reigned over Rome in the period 96–180 CE, which the historian characterized as the happiest and most prosperous time in human history. But these men were almost the exceptions that prove the rule. British policy in the 19th century was guided by statesmen such as Palmerston and Salisbury — men who understood both Britain’s interests and the limits of its power. For a brief period of ten years, between the fall of France in 1940 and the decision to march to the Yalu in Korea in 1950, American foreign policy received, in general, wise elite guidance. These were critical years, and we should be thankful that men such as George Marshall and Dean Acheson were in power at that time. But except for that brief span, elite leadership of American foreign policy has entailed economic and blood costs far in excess of those we actually needed to pay. Even the 1940s had their dark side, for those years were marked by the beginning of the modern “Deep State.”

The Deep State, quite real though unacknowledged by most academic historians and the mainstream media, amounts to a partnership between nonstate actors and various groups inside government, working together to shape and carry out policies that are generally contrary to the popular will, and often to the national interest as well. The Deep State is not a second, shadow government or conspiracy central, with permanent members who manipulate puppets in the White House and the halls of Congress. Rather, it consists of shifting or ad hoc alliances between government insiders and groups of powerful people or institutions outside of government. The former are sometimes elected officials, sometimes holders of key posts in the bureaucracy or the military. Such alliances are typically formed in the name of “national security” but often benefit only the ideological, institutional, or pecuniary interests of Deep State actors.

Some of the nonstate actors are “respectable” (the big New York banks, the oil majors, defense contractors), while others are by no means so (the Mafia, international drug traffickers). But whether they can be mentioned in polite company or not, their influence has often been felt in the councils of government, and particularly with respect to American foreign policy. For example, the swift transformation of the CIA, originally conceived as an intelligence-gathering agency, into a covert operations juggernaut was the work of men drawn mainly from Wall Street law firms and investment banks. These men went on to cooperate with the Mafia in places such as Cuba, extending an overworld-underworld partnership that went back to World War II.

Malign influences of this sort had been present since at least the end of the Civil War, but in earlier times had been limited to buying votes in Congress or persuading the executive to dispatch the Marines to establish order and collect debts in Latin American banana republics. The great expansion of government in World War II, and especially during the Cold War, allowed the Deep State to metastasize. The collapse of the European colonial empires and the simultaneous ascension of America to superpower status meant that after 1945 the American Deep State could extend its tentacles globally.

The turning point was probably the National Security Act of 1947, which created the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the National Security Council. These institutions, and particularly the first two, were (and to an extent still are) beyond the effective control of either the Congress or the president of the moment. And they are not alone. The various intelligence services and the military, or parts thereof, often pursue agendas that are at variance with official policy as set out by the president. They sometimes partner with each other, or with powerful institutions and people outside of government, to achieve mutually desired objectives. President Eisenhower, with his immense personal popularity and prestige, was able to hold the line to the extent of keeping us out of another shooting war, though he nevertheless felt compelled to warn the people, in his farewell address, of the growing power and influence of the Deep State, which he termed the Military-Industrial Complex.

The “deep events” of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — Dallas, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra — cannot be understood without reference to the Deep State. The role of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) in Iran-Contra is a good example of the Deep State in action. I mention BCCI specifically because its peculiar history has been revealed in several well-researched books and in investigations by the Congress. But the role of BCCI in Iran-Contra (and much else besides) is just one of the many strange manifestations of the Deep State in our history. The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.

The loss of liberty that resulted from the emergence and growth of the Deep State was real and perhaps irreversible. By the 1960s, the machinery of domestic surveillance, created in embryo by J. Edgar Hoover even before World War II, included spying on the populace by the FBI, CIA, NSA, and the military. Domestic spying was reined in somewhat during the 1970s, only to be ramped up again under Reagan in the 1980s. These abuses were part of the price paid for victory in the Cold War. Whether such abuses were inevitable under Cold War conditions is debatable; I personally would characterize them as the effluvia typical of a bloated imperium.

The Deep State’s activities sometimes remain forever dark, are sometimes only partially revealed, or if revealed are explained away as aberrations.

Be that as it may, the Cold War did end in a real victory, and with victory came the hope that the worrisome trends (“worrisome” is doubtless too mild a word) that the struggle against totalitarianism had initiated or exacerbated could be reversed.

It was therefore highly encouraging when in 1990 Kirkpatrick published her article calling on America to become once again a normal country. That the call was sounded by a leading representative of the neoconservative movement, rather than someone from the Left, was quite promising. If a hardliner such as Kirkpatrick could see the light, perhaps other important leaders of the American polity would, too.

In the 1990s there were some indications that we were heading in the right direction. Under Bush the First and Clinton, defense spending decreased by about 30% from Cold War highs. Internally, signs of health began to emerge — for example, the decline in crime to early 1960s levels, and the return to a balanced federal budget (the latter, admittedly, achieved with some accounting legerdemain). A slow but steady healing process appeared to be underway.

In retrospect, one can see that these were mere surface phenomena. America’s role in the world did not undergo a fundamental reappraisal, as Kirkpatrick’s thesis demanded. The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap. Meddling elsewhere — in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo — reinforced this view, even though Somalia turned out badly (and of course Bosnia eventually became a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and jihadism, which is the state of affairs there today). In the 1990s pundits and average citizens alike began to speak openly of an American empire, while of course stressing its liberal and benign aspects. “We run the world” was the view espoused across a broad spectrum of public opinion, with dissent from this view confined to a few libertarians and traditional conservatives on the right, and some principled thinkers on the left.

At the same time, Deep State actors were attempting, both openly and covertly, to prevent any return to normalcy (if I may use that term), while promoting their agenda of American supremacy. Certain academics and intellectuals, lobbyists, defense contractors, and government officials with their eyes on the revolving door were all working assiduously to convince the Congress and the people that a return to something like a normal country in a normal time was a dangerous proposition. In fact, of course, there was no longer any need for America to maintain a huge military establishment and a worldwide network of bases — for there was no longer any existential threat. Russia was at that time virtually prostrate (nor did it ever have to become an enemy again), China as a danger was at least 25 years away, and Islamic terrorism was in its infancy — and could moreover have been sidestepped if the US had simply withdrawn from the Middle East, or at least evacuated Saudi Arabia and ended its one-sided support for Israel. But in the end these facts were either ignored or obscured by influential people with foreign policy axes to grind, assisted by others who had a financial stake in the maintenance of a global American empire.

The almost bloodless Gulf War of 1991 (paid for by our allies) seemed to indicate that empire could now be done on the cheap.

One group, The Project for the New American Century, stands out for its persistence and drive in seeking to advance a particularist agenda. It is no exaggeration to say that the members of this group — which included not only such faux intellectuals as Bill Kristol, but men with real power inside and outside of government, such as Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — prepared the way for the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. The blueprints for both the war and the Act were prepared by these men even before 9/11. September 11, 2001 was of course a turning point, just as 1947 had been. The neocons, the Deep State, had won. When the towers came down it meant that “full-spectrum dominance” had triumphed over “a normal country in a normal time.”

The Project for the New American Century closed its doors in 2006, but the neocons live on, and persist in calling for more defense spending, more interventionism, and more government restrictions on civil liberties. And they are joined by other voices. The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite. They, like the neocons, see Obama as far too passive a commander-in-chief, even as he wages war by proxy and drone in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and continues the state of national emergency first declared by George W. Bush on September 14, 2001. The state of emergency gives extraordinary wartime powers to the executive, even in the absence of a declared war. Some of the powers that the commander-in-chief possesses under the declaration are actually secret. Obama, who has the authority to end the state of emergency, has instead renewed it annually since taking office. The Congress, which is required by law to meet every six months to determine whether the state of emergency should be continued, has never considered the matter in formal session. (The Roman Republic, in case of a dire emergency, appointed a dictator whose power automatically expired after six months’ time. Only under the empire was a permanent autocracy instituted.)

At the same time, the systematic domestic surveillance authorized under the Patriot Act, far more extensive than anything J. Edgar Hoover or James Jesus Angleton (CIA Chief of Counterintelligence, 1954–1975) ever dreamed of, has been left virtually intact by the Obama administration and the Congress.

Obama’s successor, whether Republican or Democrat, is almost certain to be more interventionist abroad, and equally or more unfriendly to civil liberties at home (Trump seems mainly concerned with getting our allies to pay more for the protection we give them, as opposed to cutting back on our worldwide commitments, while his apparent views on civil liberties are not encouraging). America, it appears, is incapable of dialing back on imperial overstretch. Yet what vital American interest is served by meddling in places like Yemen or Ukraine? What ideals are fulfilled by supporting the suppression of democracy in, for example, Bahrain? It seems clear that American elites, both inside and outside government, simply cannot bring themselves to let the world be, cannot abandon the concept of a global order organized and run by the United States.

With distance comes perspective. As time passes it becomes ever clearer that George W. Bush’s war in Iraq represented a second American Syracuse, a defeat with catastrophic consequences. It is quite true that, as in Vietnam, our forces were not beaten in the field. But the greater truth is that the political objectives in Iraq, as in Vietnam, were not achievable, and that this could and should have been recognized from the start. Today most of Iraq is divided between a corrupt and incompetent Shia-led government under the influence of Iran, and an ISIS-dominated territory in which obscurantism and bloodthirsty brutality hold sway. Such are the fruits of the successful march on Baghdad in 2003. Trillions of American dollars — every penny of it borrowed — were thrown down the Iraqi rathole, as the Bush administration abandoned the principle of balanced budgets and the prospect of paying off the national debt, something that appeared eminently possible at the beginning of its term in office. The dead and the maimed, Americans and Iraqis, suffered to no purpose.

The liberal interventionists who surround Hillary Clinton are best characterized by the term neocon-lite.

Americans are a resilient people. America’s institutions, despite obvious flaws, are superior to those of its enemies and rivals. America recovered from the Syracuse of Vietnam and not only salved the wounds of that war but went on to defeat its main competitor in the arena of world politics. But can America recover from a second Syracuse?

Compare the state of the nation today with that of 1945, or even 1965. Admittedly, not everything has gone to rot. The advances achieved by women and minorities — racial and sexual — have given us a better, freer society, at least on the social plane, compared to 50 years ago. Advances in technology have in some respects brightened our lives. But the heavy hand of government and the machinations of the Deep State have brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy, enmeshed us in foreign lands where we ought never to have trespassed, and put limits on basic freedoms of speech and privacy. Broad-based prosperity and the economic optimism of the past are gone, perhaps forever, because of adventurism abroad and elite mismanagement of the economy at home.

The current ruptures in the governing duopoly, Republican-Democrat, are clear evidence of dysfunction at the highest level, and of the citizens’ discontent. Yet the election of 2016 will be fought out between a bloviating, ignorant real estate tycoon and a tired, corrupt ex-First Lady. The former knows little of the Washington machine or the intricacies of the Deep State; I predict that, if elected, he will be reduced to a virtual puppet, and the fact will never dawn on him. Hillary, on the other hand, is very comfortable with the status quo, no matter what she may say to placate the supporters of her rival Bernie Sanders. Neither Trump nor Clinton — or anyone else with power, either — appears to have a clue about the real nature of the crisis we are in, much less how to bring us out of it.

A normal country in a normal time? Never again, I think. The future appears quite dark to me.

* * *

Author’s Note: Some readers of Liberty may be unfamiliar with the concept of the Deep State, or may reject it as mere conspiracy-mongering. In fact, the Deep State (or parts thereof) has been discussed in several well-researched books. A newcomer to the idea might begin by reading Philip Giraldi’s article, “Deep State America,”which appeared on the website of the American Conservative on July 30, 2015. Read it. I take issue with Giraldi in one respect: his total focus on the New York-Washington axis of power. The Sun Belt also plays a huge role in the Deep State. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1990 article, by the way, cannot be read free online, but is available through JSTOR.




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The Smallest Minority

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After the terrorist attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, some pious souls in the media called for 24 hours of dignified silence before the politicizers launched into their usual politicizing. I don’t think it lasted even 24 seconds. In the length of time it takes for the shot-clock to run out in an NBA basketball game, the players were at it again.

From the right came cries for tightened restrictions on Muslim immigration. “The Religion of Peace strikes again!” conservative pundits crowed. And from the left, somber words of comfort for “the LGBT community.” They’d ban all those horrible guns this time. Oh, and this heinous crime was most certainly not the fault of radicalized Muslims, but of anti-gay Christians who don’t want to bake cakes.

The concept of the individual is as dead as the human beings liquidated in the Pulse attack.

A meme almost immediately made the rounds on Facebook. Where “gays” — meaning all of us, evidently — needed to be schooled on how stupid we “all” are because we side with the gun-banning appeasers of terrorists who want to kill us. Or something.

I left a comment reminding these “libertarian conservatives” that collectivist thinking and mindless identity politics are supposedly the sole province of the Left they so despise. That by no means all gay people think the way they assumed every one of us did. I was readily assaulted by a battalion of overaged third-graders, screeching that I had to be an hysterical, gun-grabbing, Muslim-appeasing leftist (what else could I be?). One patriotic gentleman told me that I had the IQ of squashed fruit. Pun almost certainly intended.

If this is the state of “libertarian conservatism,” then heaven help us. These people have been sucked headfirst into the same black hole that has already swallowed millions of leftists. The concept of the individual — defended by Ayn Rand as “the smallest minority” — is as dead as the human beings liquidated in the Pulse attack.

Members of any so-called community of minorities who permit themselves to be lumped together into a faceless glob are committing a sort of suicide.

The full Rand passage is this: “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.” I guess the battalion on that Facebook post missed that in their quick scan of the CliffsNotes.

Members of any so-called community of minorities who permit themselves to be lumped together into a faceless glob are committing a sort of suicide. They are sacrificing their very selves. No politician or activist who demands this of them has any genuine regard for them as human beings. When people are rounded up together like cattle, it is not very often by those who care about them, or mean them well.

The Orlando shooter was able to kill so many because they’d corralled themselves into a confined space. Not because of cowardice or any coercion, but because that was where they could have a good time. The reasoning of those who would exert power over us “for our own good” also presses us together into a crowd, where we are indistinguishable from everybody else, can’t assert our individuality and can be more easily manipulated. We also find it more difficult to defend ourselves from harm, and nearly impossible to escape it.

In the aftermath of the Pulse massacre, of course many of the usual people are repeating their boilerplate blather. They’re obsessed with “gun violence,” about which we supposedly must “do something.” But the master programmers of this blather seem less confident than they have in the past. An increasing number of gay people are now deciding that the “something” we must do is something else.

As first responders moved among the shattered bodies of the dead in that nightclub, they heard the ringing of victims’ cellphones. Calls that would never be answered. Calls from friends and relatives who were not trying to call “the gay community,” or “stupid liberal gays who hate guns,” but merely loved ones for whose lives they feared, and whom they’d called too late.

I will need to be more careful, from now on, about where I go and whom I’m with. I’ll need to watch the exits when I’m in a predominantly-gay crowd. Of course I’m not always allowed to bring a gun wherever I go, and in the types of gatherings where large numbers of gay people will be, firearms will almost certainly be forbidden. Yes, I take it personally that 50 people were murdered because they were gay. But I take it as no less of an affront that a few elites, who think they’re better qualified to see to my safety than I am, are doing their utmost to keep me from defending myself.

I will need to be more careful, from now on, about where I go and whom I’m with. I’ll need to watch the exits when I’m in a predominantly-gay crowd.

They’ll tell me I’m stupid when I protest that I have the right to self-defense. Others will call me stupid simply because “all” gays must be presumed not to care about defending themselves. There are already many, many more Muslims in this country than there are gays. The Left — which really cares about nothing but power — can certainly do the math. If they couldn’t use it as a pretext for disarming the citizenry, or for slandering all Christians yet again, many of them wouldn’t bother shedding a single tear for those of us who are murdered.

In one way or another, every one of us gets thrown into some demographic group, which then becomes a voting bloc, of interest to the political class only because it wants something from us, or can get something out of us. The individual is indeed the tiniest minority. Yet if enough of us remember that individuality is the one feature we all share, perhaps we can rise up and reassert a commitment to our common humanity. And if that does happen, maybe those cellphones won’t have rung in vain.




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The Prospect Before Us

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It’s hard to write this. Like most of the country, I’m still in shock. But we need to face the fact that on January 20 either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will become president. According to recent public opinion polls, it will be Trump. He and Clinton are neck and neck, but he underpolls to a very significant degree.

Nevertheless, libertarians have a choice. I don’t mean the choice of whether to vote Libertarian. Go ahead and do that if you want. It makes no difference, except for whether you want to hurt Clinton more than Trump, or Trump more than Clinton; and right now it isn’t clear which one would be hurt more by an LP vote. The real choice has to do with how libertarians are going to work for liberty in the new environment of 2017.

I say “new” because I think that either a Clinton or a Trump administration would pose problems that libertarians haven’t thought much about, at least lately.

Clinton:

If Clinton is elected, it will be because she squeezed the last ounce of support from the only groups that actually support her: some ethnic minorities, some feminists, most academics, and all of the newer labor unions, mainly those representing government employees. She will try to pack the courts with judges who favor the extreme demands of pressure groups claiming to speak for these voters.

“So what’s new?” you say. “Obama has been doing that forever.”

But that’s the problem. Clinton would attempt a firm institutionalization of ideas and practices that libertarians know are bad and that most Americans don’t much like, but have been getting used to. Until Trump came along, many young people had never heard a national figure defying the political correctness that many of them assume has existed forever. The Obama ideology has been swallowed whole by a large segment of the “educated” population, preparing the way for Sanders and his crew, now including Clinton, to demand that the promises of this ideology be fulfilled — make college “free” and totally “correct,” bankrupt the prosperous, cripple the banks, sue firearms manufacturers for “gun violence” (thereby destroying the manufacture of guns), escalate the government take-over of healthcare, and so on. If Clinton is elected, libertarians will have the hard job of showing that this ideology is simply nonsense and that it has never before been part of American ideals.

Clinton would attempt a firm institutionalization of ideas and practices that libertarians know are bad and that most Americans don’t much like, but have been getting used to.

That task may be as formidable, and as interesting, as the task performed by the libertarians of the 1950s and 1960s, who had to argue hard for what should have been virtually self-evident propositions: America was historically anti-imperialist, and should return to being that way; conscription was rare in American history and should never have been continued after World War II; lower taxes have always strengthened, not weakened, the economy; and so on. Libertarians must now argue harder, for even more no-longer-self-evident ideas. To do so, they will need to review their own concepts and make them more accessible to other Americans.

Trump:

If Trump is elected, libertarians will have to spend a lot of effort disentangling good and popular ideas about the incompetence of the current government and the evils of political correctness from bad, yet popular, ideas about free trade, taxation, and (above all) the use of utilitarian, as opposed to moral, standards for the assessment of political action. This will be a mess, because the American exceptionalism, and even the American nationalism, with which Trump is associated have strong associations with the libertarian core of American history and with the utilitarian, yet true, idea that liberty has enormous practical benefits.

Trump’s Americanism must be deconstructed with the aid of a better kind of Americanism, and this again means work, the work of arguing clearly and not giving up, and the work of understanding American history better than the Trumpetorians do. You may think, “That won’t be hard,” but if so, you may be overestimating the amount of historical knowledge that most libertarians have been getting along with.

Trump’s Americanism must be deconstructed with the aid of a better kind of Americanism, and this again means work, the work of arguing clearly and not giving up

Now, in dealing with Trump or Clinton, libertarians will have strong support from members of the defeated political party and the defeated segments of the winning party. (And after all, there are plenty of libertarians in both the major parties; I am writing to them as much as to the LP libertarians.) But libertarians must be alert to the danger of being swept up in the emotions, the bad ideas, and the phony rhetoric of these new allies.

Can we do it? If we can’t, 2017 will be a very bad year. And, to be candid, even if we can, it will still be bad — though getting better.




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Will Libertarians Ever Sing Kumbaya?

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I keep hearing about the “libertarian moment.” And I do believe we’re inching toward one — although we’re not there yet. I’m hoping that when it does arrive, our moment will be beautiful to behold. But will it sound beautiful? So far, we’re making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

On Facebook, I belong to several libertarian groups — part of the lively cross-section of America that the social media serve. These are contentious times, and this election year has been a bloody mess. Sensible souls (most of whom probably stay away from Facebook) might imagine that within groups dedicated to one particular point of view, the discourse is relatively harmonious. That would be sensible, but as far as libertarian groups are concerned it certainly isn’t true.

A lot of the members of these online groups heartily hate each other. They’re at each other’s throats all the time. Of course we’re an independent bunch, and our individualism makes us obstreperous. But I must admit that I come away from some Facebook encounters — as well as any number of those that happen face-to-face — quite shaken. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

So far, libertarians are making an awful lot of noise, but it’s becoming more of a cacophony than a symphony.

More and more people are joining our ranks. Of course that’s a welcome development. But too many of them are permitting the sicknesses that swarm through statist politics to infect the liberty movement. Our new converts are bringing these contagions in with them.

Confusion abounds about what should be politicized and what shouldn’t. Those of us who’ve been around for a while know that matters that legitimately concern government should be politicized, while those that government should stay completely out of should not. Either this distinction isn’t being explained to inquirers, or they’re woefully slow to grasp it.

If something shouldn’t be politicized, then why are we squabbling about it? We ought to let all comers into our treehouse, as long as they uphold libertarian ideals. I stopped worrying about cooties many years ago. And I tend to resent my time being wasted by disputes over who belongs at which table in the cafeteria.

On one of the libertarian Facebook pages, a couple of days before I began this essay, someone posted a screed ridiculing belief in God. Why was that posted there? Are there no atheist groups? The unmistakable implication was that all libertarians are — or should be — atheists.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are.

I happen to be a libertarian primarily because I’m a Christian, and it’s the political philosophy I believe comes closest to the way Christ taught his followers to live. Now, if I believed that this meant the United States should be turned into a theocracy, I can see why other libertarians would have a problem with it. But then again, if I did believe such a thing, I wouldn’t be a libertarian.

Statist politics tend to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. They also attract weaklings unsure of who they are. Those invested in seeing themselves (or being seen) as strong and tough-minded, or as godly, patriotic, and upright, usually become Republicans. They love to strut and crow about their “conservatism.” And would-be sophisticates, itching to join the society of the intellectual, the revolutionary, or the cool, gravitate toward the Democratic Party and bloviate endlessly about “progressivism,” “compassion,” and “social justice.”

If these were simply their opinions about themselves, such fancies would be relatively harmless. There is nothing particularly wrong with being any of these things, or at least of trying to be. But they are opinions. They are not fully-fleshed identities. Nor are they necessarily convictions that grow out of confident self-knowledge.

Now this sort of middle-school preening is making its way into the liberty movement. We’re all supposed to care who’s too smart to believe in God, who’s more compassionate toward the downtrodden than everybody else, who thinks all women should be housewives and who thinks homosexuality is a sin. It’s like listening to 12-year-olds brag about being asked to the dance or making the basketball team. As long as these matters aren’t forced to become their problem, well-adjusted adults aren’t going to give a damn.

It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like.

I don’t believe that any law should force bakers to make my wedding cake. Some right-tilting libertarians are so disappointed when they hear this that they refuse to believe it. The switch is flipped on when they hear that I’m gay, and they’re so intent on proving whatever point they feel compelled to prove that there’s no way to turn it off again. It used to be understood, by most people over the age of twelve, that adulthood meant occasionally having to suffer the proximity of those they didn’t like. The Republicans and the Democrats have decided that, as a popular Facebook meme puts it, they “don’t want to ‘adult’ today” — which might explain why both parties’ membership rolls are shrinking.

One of the things I love best about libertarians is that most of us enjoy being individuals. When we come together, I meet gay Christians, pro-life atheists, gun-toting pacifists, and recovering alcoholics who’d never touch weed but wholeheartedly support its legalization. Nobody consents to being crammed into a pigeonhole and conveniently labeled. Each of us can be gloriously ourselves. Why would we want it any other way?

By all means, let’s keep on coming together. Maybe, instead of a symphony orchestra, we’re more like a rowdy and exuberant jazz band. We each feel free to improvise; you strut our stuff and I strut mine. Yet on the all-important central theme we cangel. Together, we can make beautiful music. As long as we remember the song.




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Unintentional Truth

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“The plaintiffs in the Trump University case, filed in 2010, accuse him and the now-defunct school of defrauding people who paid as much as $35,000 for real estate advice. Mr. Trump said Friday that Trump University received ‘mostly unbelievable reviews’ from its 10,000 students.” — “Judge Unseals Trump University Documents,” Wall Street Journal online, May 31, 2016.

Trump’s statement may well be true.




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Countdown and Aftermath

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The bylaws of the Libertarian Party stipulate that, prior to the vice presidential election, the presidential nominee be granted five minutes prior to voting “for the purpose of endorsing or objecting to” any of the candidates. Gary Johnson only used four of those minutes, and he used them entirely to plead with the assembly to elect William Weld — even closing his speech on a note of desperation: “Please, please give me Weld. Please. Please!”

If any of the attendees didn’t realize by then that the Weld candidacy was in trouble . . . well, then they hadn’t been paying any attention whatsoever. But this was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback (and, yes, boring) demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.

Let’s back up a little bit to the VP nominating speeches, the first business after the assembly returned to order. The caprice of the 20-sided die determined that Weld would be the first candidate to speak, which meant all the others after him — in order, Judd Weiss, Derrick Grayson, Alicia Dearn, Larry Sharpe, and Will Coley — could take their shots after. The last two, in particular, had impressed in the debates a few nights previous for their passion and personal narratives; their alliance would determine whether the NeverWeld movement could deny Johnson the “running mate of his wildest dreams.”

This was the first crack in Johnson’s generally laidback demeanor; his own second-ballot saga hadn’t inspired anything like this.

Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include the former Massachusetts governor? Johnson drew justified scorn for referring to Weld as “the original libertarian,” but the sentiment behind his infelicitous phrasing is apt: Weld was one of the few figures with a national profile who spoke in favor of gay marriage — about the same time Bob Barr was drafting, and Bill Clinton was signing (with Hillary’s outspoken support), the Defense of Marriage Act. Weld also called for a drawdown in the War on Drugs, and the legalization of medical marijuana in particular. Prior to his gubernatorial days, he went tough on white-collar crime, an increasingly popular position among Libertarians who see Wall Street and Washington DC locked in loving embrace.

The opposite case is easier to enumerate. First, whatever his previous inclinations, Weld had hardly even looked at the LP before (in 2006, he briefly considered seeking the Party’s nomination for governor in New York; another black mark in the minds of many). He backed Romney in 2012, and Kasich this year, before Johnson came calling; even when he could have backed a fellow Republican-turned-Libertarian in 2008, he endorsed Barack Obama instead (not that Barr was long for the LP . . .). Second, in 1990 he supported various restrictions on gun ownership, something which plays particularly badly in a group where Second Amendment rights may be more of a third rail than abortion or anything else. Third, Weld’s Massachusetts was hardly a model of fiscal prudence; admittedly, there was a great deal of bleeding to staunch after Michael Dukakis’ tenure, but like so many politicians Weld lost his nerve once actually in office. There’s more numbers to be had, but I’ll skip ahead: lastly, even now, he believes that Hillary Clinton, who has overseen a disastrous war in Libya, and who would gladly have added another in Syria (and probably still will), has been a “good Secretary of State.”

In his speech, Johnson emphasized what Weld would bring to the ticket: fundraising knowhow, and media access. The latter had already been proven on day one at the media credentials table, and underlined every day since with the numbers of reporters on the ground, many of whom acknowledged that they would never have been dispatched to Orlando if the dual-governor ticket weren’t a strong likelihood (and, of course, if the major-party candidates weren’t both so dreadful). Give me William Weld, he said, and anything is possible. Anyone else, and a once-in-a-generation opportunity would be lost.

Why would anyone’s wildest dreams include former Massachusetts governor William Weld?

It was a hard sell. Weld’s first nominating speaker, former Orange County Superior Court Judge Jim Gray, rang his endorsement of Weld, despite his disappointment at being eclipsed in the role. For that, he drew calls of “Statist!” from the crowd — something which is less true of Gray than possibly of any other single jurist in this country’s history. Things got tougher still with Marc Allan Feldman spoke as Weld’s second nominator — a speech which several of the anti-Weld radicals received as betrayal, though “backhanded” would be a mild way of describing the endorsement. Feldman felt that, with Johnson taking the top of the ticket, he should be given the running mate he pled for, and he agreed that a Johnson-Weld ticket would get far more media play than any alternative. That was it for the positives; the rest was taken up with every reason Weld shouldn’t get the post.

After some befuddled applause, and a few more boos, Weld rose and gave an animated, almost fiery speech, his best statement of the convention. While admitting his lack of familiarity with the LP and its workings, he nonetheless pledged to be “Libertarian for life,” and to work not only for his own campaign The party platform, meanwhile, which he had read two weeks before when considering Johnson’s proposal, he found elegant, “like the Declaration of Independence.” He noted that the whirlwind process had been “a learning experience,” that he would continue improving, and that he was “open to suggestion” as to how.

As Weld went to take media questions, Judd Weiss stepped up, not to make his case for vice president, but to pull out of the race. Weiss had been McAfee’s right-hand man, and with his boss out of the picture, he used his time to promote their video series and speak to the importance of supporting the grassroots and downballot candidates — noting that what he saw in the LP was a marketing problem; specifically, that the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”

Interestingly, he endorsed radical favorite Will Coley rather than McAfee’s preferred backup candidate, Derrick Grayson, who was an odd presence in several ways. First, he seemed to take issue with the speech McAfee gave before the VP nominations, in which the ex-candidate took the LP to task for the overwhelming (and visually verifiable) white-maleness of its ranks, even to the point of saying, “Shame on you, and shame on me,” for allowing the outreach effort to become so ossified. Grayson, a physically striking, smartly-dressed black Georgian with preacherly cadence, instead drew attention to the few people of color at the convention, before pivoting to say that, “When I enter this building, I don’t see race, I see people who love liberty” — which is great rhetoric for the mid-’90s, perhaps, but not ultimately convincing in an assembly that is whiter than Maine.

What Weiss saw in the LP was a marketing problem: the Party is “too many engineers, all dominating the sales department.”

Grayson had some memorable lines, though, including that the idea of nominating someone like Weld for media coverage and then fixing principle, rather than nominating someone for principle and then seeking media coverage was “butt-backwards.” It was almost enough for some to forget that this exact thing had been tried multiple times throughout party history — or, on an entirely different track, to forget Grayson’s campaign as a Republican, including having his primary challenge to US Sen. Johnny Isakson shut down by the FEC for failing to file campaign finance reports. Not everyone forgot, though: there were calls from the floor demanding to see Grayson’s party membership receipt, dated and timed, to ensure that he was eligible to run; unfortunately, the vehemence of these calls came off less as principled and more as unhinged, Birther-level conspiracy-mongering (especially when accompanied by calls to see the same for Weld, who was verified as a Life member).

After this, things got odd. Alicia Dearn, a St. Louis attorney who had done work for LP ballot access and the 2012 Johnson campaign (the fees for which she had later written off), had nonetheless been one of the major hopes of the Never Weld campaigners; Austin Peterson endorsed her in his own concession, and wore her sticker on his lapel. While other contingents didn’t mobilize around her, they did agree on a strategy to use the first ballot to establish the strongest competitor to Weld, and the second to band together and bring him down. But Dearn herself wasn’t convinced of the plan. After speaking on the importance of party unity, she posed a question to Weld: will you swear not to “betray” the LP?

It became clear she expected Weld to actually come up to the podium, which she relinquished to him when he did so. Weld wanted clarification, understandably: we’d already seen the very different definitions of what people in this audience counted as “betrayal.” But he said that he would never (unlike the specter in the background, Bob Barr) return to the GOP. “Is that sufficient?” he asked. “Yes!” cried some in the crowd, who may already have been supporters. “No!” shouted others, who never would be, no matter what he said. Still, the net result was Weld getting three extra minutes to stump, and a seeming endorsement from Dearn — except then she pulled back from that edge; she declined to withdraw, encouraging everyone to “vote their own heart,” even though she did not know hers yet.

That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc to survive even the first ballot. The two were a study in contrast: the former Tea Partier Coley relatively well-known from his radio show and his work with Muslims for Liberty, a forceful speaker with experience crafting talks for the liberty-curious; Sharpe an outsider not known for much of anything (certainly not his day job, a sales training course about as culty as others of its ilk), but with a genuinely inspiring life story and a winning manner. This life story was the interminable focus of his nominating speech, which included no speeches for the first ten minutes while a video played detailing Sharpe’s family history, the challenges he’d overcome, his leadership in the Marines and in Ivy League teaching gigs, etc. It was all fine enough, but a lot to ask of a crowd many of whose members had brought beers back with them from lunch. Coley was more traditional: several speakers from the Radical Caucus spoke for him, underlining the need to “balance” the ticket as well as the candidate’s ability to challenge Trump and Clinton on their biases against Muslims; then Coley himself spoke, promising to “inspire and electrify” voters, even though this speech was perhaps his most subdued on record. Then Johnson made his plea for Weld, and the ballots were distributed.

That strange half-kneecapping left the other two Never Weld candidates, Larry Sharpe and Will Coley, scrambling to try and shore up enough of a voting bloc.

As ever, it takes a while to hand out and recollect ballots, especially from the larger delegations like California and Texas. This left quite some time for the mood of the room to turn rowdy, and a little ugly. In the normal course of voting, there are speeches, there are parliamentary points, there are supporters of various candidates walking the aisles with the signs of their chosen. But now was added loud chanting, especially by a small Never Weld group, often making it impossible to hear points from the podium or floor microphone. Now was also the confrontation between several of these — including radical candidate for party chair, James Weeks II — and Feldman, as he defended his Weld endorsement as a chance to speak to the negatives, as well as to demonstrate the virtues of compromise, of “learning to live with people you hate.” But nothing spilled over into physical confrontation; the worst I saw was a visibly drunk 20-something guy yelling at a woman of similar age holding a Weld sign: “You hate Ron Paul! Hey, she hates Ron Paul!” He withered under her glare and, finding no support among those around him, bumbled on.

The vote count didn’t make anybody any happier. Weld couldn’t take the first ballot, bringing an initial cheer from the Never Welders that lasted about as long as it took to see the tally: the ex-gov took 426 votes; 49% of the total and single digits away from what he needed. The only hope would be to swing everyone behind Sharpe, who had gotten 264 — not just the Coley and Grayson totals, but also Dearn’s, and the NOTAs, and maybe even the spoiled ballots and write-ins.

As lowest votegetter, Dearn was granted time to concede, but could not be found — she’d left the event, and would have to rush back. In the meantime Coley went ahead and dropped, endorsing Sharpe as per their pre-vote agreement, but also reminding the delegates of Weld’s role in the past helping to shoot down Libertarian legitimacy. Dearn arrived in the meantime, and noted that she hadn’t even voted for herself; she and her husband both abstained from the first ballot. Now she completed the endorsement of Weld she had considered before, and earned lusty boos from pockets of the crowd for her perfidy.

Only after the second-round ballots had been printed did Grayson decide to withdraw. He also endorsed Sharpe, claiming those going Weld were “Kool-Aid drinkers.” This particular pedant must intrude here to note that the Jonestown massacre-suicide was through Flavor-Aid, not its better-known competitor, and besides that casting a vote in an LP VP contest is some distance away from killing yourself and your family. But the comment got under some delegates’ skins for other reasons, with one even trying with some vehemence to object to the point from the floor mic.

When Weeks kicked off his shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed.

Counting continued. With time running low on weekend and the use of the ballroom, the body moved as usual to allow candidates for party chair to speak during the ballot count. This meant incumbent chair Nicholas Sarwark handing off the gavel to prepare for his own speech — a fateful move. Sarwark had drawn the admiration of every other reporter I spoke with that weekend, many marveling at his ability not just to keep things moving, but to do so with grace and good humor. (An example: during a lull, one delegate asked for a point of information, which granted, said: “Mr. Chairman, is taxation theft?” Without missing a beat, Sarwark: “Yes, taxation is theft,” before acknowledging the next speaker.)

With Sarwark off the podium, podium duty fell to former LP chairman Jim Lark, a distinguished, almost august figure in the Party, but one not at all prepared to marshal a rambunctious group riding emotional and, in some cases, chemical highs. Lark could not effectively quiet the chanters, or get the aisles cleared, but what he was about to face may have been beyond the ability of any parliamentary chair to wrangle.

The candidates for chair were four: Sarwark, Brett Pojunis (Nevada state chair), Mark Rutherford (former chair in Indiana), and James Weeks II (former congressional candidate and county chair in Michigan). The debate between the former three a few nights earlier had been one of the most civil and well-mannered I’ve ever seen, even if the trio all substantially agreed with one another on most things. When the 20-sided die was cast, it was newcomer Weeks who would speak first, followed by the other three.

Weeks came to the stage with a nearly empty pint glass, which he deposited at the podium. Then he signaled for music to play, and started clapping in time, getting the delegates to do the same. He even did a little dance — nothing too odd, just getting the audience moving and on his side. And that was when he started removing his clothes. When he kicked off the shoes, things were still ambiguous, but when the tie came off, it was pretty clear where this was headed. Shirt and pants followed, leaving only black bikini briefs between the audience and full knowledge of what Weeks had to offer. After a brief dance, during which a couple friends of his (one hopes) rushed on stage to tuck dollar bills into his waistband, Weeks said he was withdrawing from the race, and the whole thing was on a dare; then gathering his clothes, he withdrew.

During all of this, I was about five feet away, right in front of the podium, probably closer than any other person in the room, and I could not stop laughing. It’s an odd thing, knowing with absolute certainty that what you are seeing is about to blow up online — the C-SPAN cameras and the internet’s appetite for novelty would ensure that. What I didn’t expect was the outrage from so many delegates about what was obviously a little bit of surrealist theater — and even that more Monty Python than Monster Raving Loony Party. But one should never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.

Delegates queued up to denounce Weeks, competing with each other on how best to punish him; one even suggested permanent expulsion from the Party. Another joked that Weeks’ presentation of his zaftig form constituted a “violation of the non-aggression principle”; at least a couple of observers took him seriously. Lark couldn’t handle the commotion; it took Sarwark, speaking from the floor this time, to calm everyone and get them to move on. (What didn’t get mentioned much, even in his local press, was Weeks’ Iron Cross tattoo, increasingly used by white supremacist groups in the US and elsewhere — though as often used by metalheads, bikers, or provocateurs of various stripes; conclusions are difficult to draw.) A later proposal to officially denounce Weeks failed, and the assembly returned to its business; though the striptease was widely reported (and how could it fail to be?), somehow it did not end up defining the LP’s weekend.

Never underestimate the desire of people to impose discipline, even when it’s freedom-lovers at a gathering to celebrate the principles of liberty.

Instead the focus remained on the LP’s ticket, and after the aisles were cleared of the indignant, the results of the second ballot were announced. Though Sharpe picked up nearly all the votes in play, “nearly all” wasn’t enough; by gaining only 15 more votes, William Weld was confirmed as the Party’s VP nominee. In his concession, Sharpe noted his admiration for Gary Johnson, saying the 2012 campaign was what brought him to the LP to begin with. Judging by his performance over the weekend, it’s not the last we’ll see from Sharpe within Party politics.

What struck me most, following the VP election, was what didn’t happen. The radicals may not have been represented on the ticket, but unlike in 2008 there was no immediate call to splinter off from the Party, or to abandon it to its new Republican masters. Instead of a mass gathering in the exhibition hall outside the convention ballroom, there was instead a small, only slightly downcast postmortem in the Petersen hospitality suite, with the door open to the adjoining McAfee suite. The candidates congratulated their operatives for good work against steep odds, and encouraged them to push on for the sake of the Party.

There’s not much chance Gary Johnson and Austin Petersen will ever be friends, but the latter will work for the former and wait for his chance down the line. John McAfee, who had planned to walk out if Johnson was nominated, said, “Nothing was lost today — this is just the beginning.” While some of the radical caucusers I spoke with were unsure about whether or not they could cast a vote for Johnson-Weld, they nonetheless were eager to dive into local downballots and grassroot-growing. (In the days after the election, Will Coley seemed encouraged by Johnson, if still wary of him, following personal phone calls in which Johnson sought guidance on how best to speak about ISIS, Iran, and Middle East politics generally.) And, to judge from the results of the officer elections, with Sarwark and vice-chair Arvin Vohra reelected handily, the Party as a whole seems content with its present leadership.

In the days after the convention, the media coverage was impressive: not only because there was media coverage, but also because it was generally sympathetic, or at least without the overt misrepresentation, scorn, or dismissal standard to accounts of American third parties. Even my driver to the airport had heard of the convention, and — as a self-described entrepreneur trying to "build his personal brand" so he can provide for his family — he's a natural for the LP's message, if only they can convey it to him and the millions of others who just want to be left alone to work hard and live as well as they're able.

It's on that basis that Johnson made his plea, and it worked: the Weld gambit is underway. With both major parties and especially their nominees deeply unpopular, everything is set for the LP to achieve historic highs in the election to come. What remains to be seen, as ever, is if they can keep from screwing it up.



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Infinity in One Hour, 48 Minutes

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Biographical films, or “bioflicks” as they are often called, constitute a challenging genre for filmmakers — for a variety of reasons.

One major challenge is the difficulty of avoiding the extremes of hagiography and exposé. The temptation of a bioflick maker — especially one who is very sympathetic to the subject of the story, or who knows his audience is — may be to understate or omit relevant but unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or exaggerate the character’s good qualities or actions. One thinks of many of the biographical films of sports stars, artists, and political leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. Conversely, the filmmaker — especially one who is very hostile to his subject, or who know the audience is — may be tempted to exaggerate the unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or to understate or omit the character’s good qualities or actions. There are even cases in which the bioflick maker is sympathetic to the perceived flaws of the real character and is tempted to exaggerate or accentuate them, in an effort to convince the public that they aren’t really flaws.

For these very reasons, bioflicks are often used as propaganda. Political regimes have long recognized the power of biographical film to advance their political causes, either by adoring portrayals of certain figures (such as key leaders of the regime, or historical figures whom the regime views favorably) or hateful portrayals of others (such as key opponents of the regime or historical figures whom the regime views unfavorably). For example, the Nazi Regime used bioflicks such as Hitler Youth Quex (1933) to convince people that the Party had among its supporters many noble young people.

The young Ramanujan apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers.

Another challenge is conveying what the subject of the film actually accomplished, together with its significance. This is relatively easy if the subject is (say) an artist: the filmmaker can inter alia show pictures of the artist’s work, while portraying the difficulty he or she faced in gaining acceptance (as is nicely done in Vincente Minelli’s acclaimed biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life [1956]). Again, if the subject is a composer, it is easy to make his major compositions part of the movie’s score (a successful instance is Richard Whorf’s popular biography of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By [1946]). It can be more difficult if the subject of the film is a scientist, or worse, a mathematician. One sees these challenges, and a creative response to them, in an excellent new bioflick, currently showing in art houses.

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan was born in Erode, in the state of Madras, in 1887. He was of a Brahmin family (on his maternal side), but his parents were of limited means. His father was a clerk in a dress shop; his mother was a housewife. He survived smallpox when he was two, and grew up in a modest house in Kanchipuram (near Madras). The house is now a national museum in his honor. His mother — to whom he was very close, all his life — had three other children, all of whom died as infants. Raised as a devout Hindu, he kept the faith and Brahmin customs (especially vegetarianism) as an adult.

While Ramanujan went through secondary school and attended some college, he was largely self-taught. He mastered advanced trigonometry by age 13, discovering some higher-level theorems by himself. At age 14 he was able to pass in half the permitted time the high school math exit exam, and at age 15 he learned how to solve cubic equations. Then, by himself, he figured out how to solve quartic equations. A crucial year for him was his 16th, when a friend gave him a copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, a compilation of 5,000 theorems by G.S. Carr. He apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers, a subject on which he published a paper some years later. He was graduated from Town Higher Secondary School that year (1904), winning the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics.

Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as an editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

Unfortunately, although he was given a scholarship to attend college, he refused to focus on any studies besides mathematics, a refusal that resulted in his failure and dismissal. He subsequently left home and enrolled in another college, but again focused only on mathematics and was unable to get his bachelor’s degree. He left college in 1906 and worked as a poor independent scholar. In 1909 he married a very young girl, Srimathi Janaki — marrying very young was an Indian custom of the time — and after a bout of testicular disease, found work as a tutor helping students prepare for their mathematics exams.

In 1910, Ramanujan showed his work to V. Ramaswamy Aiyer, founder of the Indian Mathematical Society, who recognized his genius. Aiyer then sent him to R. Ramachandra Rao, secretary of the Indian Mathematical Society. Rao was initially skeptical but became convinced of Ramanujan’s originality and genius and provided both financial aid and institutional support so that Ramanujan could start publishing in the society’s journal. As the editor of the journal noted, Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as the editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

In 1913, Rao and some other Indian mathematicians tried to help Ramanujan submit his work to British mathematicians. The first few who received the material were unimpressed, but G.H. Hardy was quite struck by the nine pages of results he received. He suspected that perhaps Ramanujan wasn’t the real author, but he felt that the results had to be true, because they were so intricate and plausible that nobody could have dreamt them up. Hardy showed them to his colleague and friend J. E. Littlewood, who was also amazed at Ramanujan’s genius. Hardy and others invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to work. The Indian was at first reluctant, because of his Brahmin belief that he shouldn’t leave his country, and apparently also because his mother opposed it. To the disappointment of Hardy, he obtained a research scholarship at the University of Madras.

Nevertheless, in 1914 — apparently after his mother had an epiphany — Ramanujan agreed to come to Cambridge. He started his studies under the tutelage of Hardy and Littlewood, who were able to look at his first three “notebooks.” (Ramanujan’s fourth major notebook — often called the “lost notebook” — was rediscovered in 1976.) While Hardy and Littlewood discovered some of the results and theorems were either wrong or had already been discovered, they immediately put Ramanujan in the same class as Leonhard Euler or Carl Jacobi. Hardy and Ramanujan had clashing styles, personalities, and cultural backgrounds — among other things, Hardy was an atheist and a stickler for detailed proofs, while Ramanujan was a Hindu and highly intuitionistic — but they collaborated successfully during the five years Ramanujan was at Cambridge.

One of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is his personal friend.”

In 1916, Ramanujan was awarded a Bachelor’s of Science “by research” (a degree subsequently renamed a Ph.D). In 1917 he was elected a Fellow of the London Mathematical Society, and in 1918 to the extremely prestigious Royal Society. At 31 years of age, he was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society ever elected, and only the second Indian so honored. In that year also he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Ramanujan became ill in England, his sickness perhaps intensified by stress and (as the film suggests) by malnutrition. He was increasingly depressed and lonely, receiving few letters from his wife. The film identifies the cause as his mother’s jealous refusal to mail his wife’s letters to him. In 1918 he attempted suicide and spent time in a nursing home. He returned to Madras in 1919, and died the next year, barely 32 years of age. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, though one doctor, examining his medical records, has opined that it was actually hepatic amoebiasis. His young widow lived to the age of 95.

The film centers on the period of his life shortly before the point, shortly before his death, at which the adult Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is gaining recognition through his work at Cambridge. As the film opens in 1913, we meet Ramanujan in the temple of the goddess Namagiri, writing an equation. (The film rightly portrays him as believing that mathematical truths are divinely crafted.) We see him desperately trying to provide for his pretty young wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and his proud but rather domineering mother (Arundhati Nag). While the film focuses primarily on the relationship between Ramanujan and his work, it does skillfully present his loving but difficult marriage (he was in England, separated from his wife for nearly half his married life) as well as the strained relationship between his wife and mother.

The main part of the film, which ends with Ramanujan’s death in India, concerns his time in Britain, following with fair accuracy the real timeline of his life. We meet Hardy (Jeremy Irons) as he is given Ramanujan’s first letter and asked to comment on the handwritten pages. Irons plays Hardy as a crusty old bachelor, but also as a person who is obviously sincere in his desire to help Ramanujan. The film capably explores the relationship between the two, showing the transition from a mentorship to a friendship based on deep respect.

We watch as Hardy and Littlefield (Toby Jones) try to get the rest of the faculty — especially the racist Professor Howard (Anthony Calf) — to recognize Ramanujan’s worth. The film explores at length the antipathy that many of the British, even the faculty and students, felt toward Indians, culminating in a scene in which Ramanujan is beaten up by some soldiers — an episode that has a dramatic function, since racism against the immigrants from the colonies coming into England at the later part of WWI (to work in a labor market that had been decimated by the war) was exceedingly common — though this specific episode may have been invented. It also shows Ramanujan battling poor health in the face of a cold climate and lack of nutritious food. But Ramanujan’s spirit prevails, and we see him elected a Fellow of the College, a satisfying vindication of genuine genius over jealous bigotry. As one of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is [his] personal friend.”

The film takes the mathematics quite seriously. Two distinguished mathematicians — Manjul Bhargave and Ken Ono — are associate producers of the film. Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal — often called “the Nobel Prize of mathematics” — and Ono is a Guggenheim Fellow.

How can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof?

Portraying Ramanujan’s work cinematically is of course especially challenging. Even if the audience were shown mathematical formulas he devised, few would comprehend them, much less see the genius it took to come up with them. And, unlike some scientists or other scholars that have a sudden dramatic “Eureka!” moment when they encounter the central theory or discovery for which they become famous, Ramanujan produced a continuing torrent of major work, even when ill — nearly 3,900 results during his short life (really, just 14 years of mature research).

The film, however, is rather effective at conveying Ramanujan’s work directly, as in the scene in which Hardy describes to his valet what “partitions” are — the number of ways a number can be the sum of others, as “4” is the sum of “4,” “2 + 2,” “2 + 1 + 1,” and “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” — as well as the scene in which Hardy and Ramanujan are waiting for a cab, and when one pulls up, Ramanujan immediately observes that its ID number (1729) is unique in that it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. The film even more successfully conveys his genius obliquely by showing how the other great Cambridge mathematicians received it: Hardy and Littlewood immediately recognized the genius in his work, and we see how the other mathematicians (who are initially governed by their prejudices) are eventually compelled to recognize it. Still, this is not a movie for the completely innumerate.

The acting is outstanding across the board. Dev Patel — well-known to American audiences from his leading roles in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) — ably conveys Ramanujan’s earnestness, integrity, and perseverance. Toby Jones is also superb as Littlewood, and Jeremy Northam givers a good supporting performance as Bertrand Russell. The supporting actresses are also excellent — Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s young wife and Arundati Nag as his mother. But especially noteworthy is Jeremy Irons’ performance as Ramanujan’s sponsor, mentor, and friend G.H. Hardy.

Director Matthew Brown does an outstanding job conveying Ramanujan’s story, with descending into melodramatic hagiography. Really, he doesn’t need to because the true story — a modest, decent, indigent, largely self-taught genius in a colonized, poor country rises to the very top ranks of mathematics, in the face of considerable hostility, becoming a hero in his native land, before dying tragically young — is the very stuff of legend.

This film explores a number of issues of philosophic interest. Regarding the philosophy of religion, the exchanges between the avowed atheist Hardy and the devoutly religious Ramanujan on whether the gods give Ramanujan immediate access to mathematical truth are illustrative of how atheists and theists see the world in significantly different ways.

Regarding epistemology, Hardy is portrayed working hard to convince Ramanujan of the need not merely to recognize that a mathematical theorem is true, but to construct a proof that it is. This is an issue among other things about epistemic style: does any science advance more from bold broad conjectures, or by exact argumentation? (The movie interestingly presents Russell as counseling Hardy to let Ramanujan “run”; i.e., to let him do math as his heart dictates, which is by intuition instead of meticulous proofs. But considering the detailed constructive logical proofs that Russell — along with his mathematician coauthor Alfred North Whitehead — created in their seminal logical treatise Principia Mathematica, one is surprised and puzzled at this.)

Regarding history, the film nicely shows the effect that World War I had on the British intelligentsia, with some, such as Russell — and here the film is undeniably historically accurate — being opposed to the war, and having meetings on campus to organize opposition, while the rest of the faculty is outraged at what was taken to be a lack of patriotism.

Regarding psychology, the film invites us to think about the nature of mathematical genius: how can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof? Here we should observe that many of Ramanujan’s conjectures on prime numbers were proven incorrect — however insightful and reasonably accurate they may have been — by Littlewood and others. I would suggest that his tutelage by Hardy was of great use in getting him to provide more proofs, and that most of his 3,900 results have been proven, including work that is being used today to understand black holes.

Finally, regarding an issue of concern in America today, The Man who Knew Infinity helps the audience understand the value of immigrants. The vicious discrimination that this estimable and amiable genius from India faced at the hands of the British makes one wonder why immigrants to our own country today are being targeted for systematic abuse. This is as counterproductive as it is immoral.

In fine, this is a bioflick of rare insight, and not to be missed.[i]

 


[i]It should be noted that in 2014 an Indian company produced a major biographical film, Ramanujan. It ran two and a half hours, was shot in multiple languages (including some pidgin languages, such as Tamenglish), and had a mixed reception. I don’t believe it was generally released in America.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "The Man Who Knew Infinity," directed by Matthew Brown. Pressman Film/Xeitgeist Entertainment Group/Cayenne Pepper Productions, 2016, 108 minutes.



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